An independent panel of experts is poised to scrutinize one of the Trump administration’s most consequential environmental rollbacks.

EPA’s Science Advisory Board voted last week to review the science behind the proposed overhaul of Obama-era clean car standards. The 45-member board, which is tasked with advising EPA on a range of scientific matters, will zero in on the technical analysis underpinning the proposal (E&E News PM, June 6).

Critics of the Trump EPA say the review stands to highlight errors in that analysis that could inform future lawsuits against the administration.

“We anticipate this review will paint a more complete picture ... of the current proposal’s inconsistencies and faulty conclusions,” said Robbie Diamond, president and CEO of Securing America’s Future Energy.

Jeff Alson, a former staffer in EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality, said the administration’s analysis “doesn’t pass the laugh test.”

“I think it was clearly based on politics, not science,” he said.

The rollback, formally known as the “Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule,” is aimed at significantly weakening Obama-era greenhouse gas and fuel economy standards for light-duty vehicles.

President Obama made the standards a key plank of his climate agenda. He envisioned getting cars to travel an average of 54.5 mpg by 2025.

But EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are proposing to freeze fuel economy requirements at an average of 37 mpg.

The two agencies are also proposing to withdraw California’s Clean Air Act waiver for greenhouse gases, which allows the state to set tougher tailpipe pollution rules than the federal government.

The scientific board’s review will serve as an important check on the Trump EPA, said Trish Koman, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

“EPA is a science-based agency, and it has very large public health responsibilities. So the law requires, and the public expects, EPA to obtain independent science advice,” said Koman, who worked as an EPA scientist for 22 years before leaving the agency in 2012.

“The agency, as an institution, really needs to have procedures in place so they can do a rigorous look at the analysis and provide the best information to decisionmakers and the public,” she added.

‘What is going on there?’

The SAB meeting last week took place in downtown Washington, D.C., and spanned two days.

During the first day, the board grappled with how to approach the clean cars rollback and, in particular, the role California plays.

The proposal sets up a clash with the California Air Resources Board, which has historically issued tougher tailpipe pollution rules than the federal government. Thirteen states have adopted those tougher requirements.

An SAB work group chaired by Alison Cullen, a public health expert at the University of Washington, recommended that the full board review the proposal only if EPA and CARB fail to reach agreement on “harmonized” tailpipe standards applying to the entire country.

“If they don’t harmonize the rule between CARB and EPA, then I think it would be interesting for SAB to consider what are the differences,” Cullen said. “Why are they not able to harmonize? And [are] aspects of the science being differently emphasized? What is going on there?”

The board also confronted the rollback’s effect on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

An analysis by the Rhodium Group, an economic consulting firm, found that the proposal would lead to an additional 32 million to 114 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

But John Christy, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, argued that the proposal would not affect emissions at all. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler appointed Christy, who rejects mainstream climate science, to the board in January (E&E News PM, Jan. 31).

The rollback “will have zero effect on the climate,” Christy said at the meeting. “So this is going to be a policy issue. There’s no science in terms of its impact on the climate.”

SAB Chairman Michael Honeycutt proposed that the board defer action on the rollback until its next meeting. But that remark prompted grumbles of opposition from several members. The board then agreed by a show of hands to conduct the review.


The SAB faces a severely compressed time window for its review. The Trump administration is seeking to finalize the rollback this month, although experts have questioned whether it can meet this self-imposed deadline (Climatewire, June 3).

“If the administration is going to proceed on the time frame it mentioned, it’s going to be very hard for the SAB to do an analysis of the scope and complexity that’s needed,” said Chris Frey, a professor of environmental engineering at North Carolina State University.

Frey, who served on the SAB from 2012 to 2018, accused Wheeler of using delay tactics to foster the time crunch. The board sent EPA a notice of its intent to review the rollback last June; Wheeler responded 10 months later.

“It shouldn’t take 10 months for the administrator to respond,” Frey said. “In my opinion, the administrator is foot-dragging to let the clock run out and hope the SAB doesn’t get its act together to do anything.”

EPA spokesman Michael Abboud pushed back.

“In his first few months on the job, Administrator Wheeler has strived to engage with the SAB on a more regular basis, which is why he provided his April letter to the board and appeared before the Board last week to take questions,” Abboud said in an email to E&E News.

“Administrator Wheeler will continue to work with the SAB and try to improve relations that the previous administration took for granted,” he said.

Lawsuits on the horizon

Still, the board’s review could ultimately provide ammunition for future lawsuits.

“It would be informative to future rulemaking efforts to have an SAB opinion on record. And it may also be informative to litigants,” Frey said.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D), a vocal foe of President Trump, has promised to sue once the rollback is finalized. So have a litany of environmental groups.

“We all know that there will be immediate litigation as soon as the rollback is completed,” said Alson, the former EPA staffer. “If the Science Advisory Board were to go on record with concerns about how the science and technical analysis were carried out, I would think that would be exactly the type of information judges would be interested in.”

The SAB could help California and green groups pinpoint specific errors in the administration’s technical analysis, Alson said.

In particular, the administration has argued that the rollback will prevent 12,700 deaths on the nation’s roads. To justify this claim, it pointed to something called the “scrappage model,” which predicts when people will “scrap” an older car and purchase a newer model.

But critics say the administration manipulated the scrappage model to get its desired result.

“The analysis underlying your proposal simply makes no sense,” CARB Chairwoman Mary Nichols testified at a hearing in Fresno, Calif., last year, adding, “[These] claims are not only absurd on their face; they are not supportable by fact.”

A group of 11 prominent researchers published a paper in Science magazine last year accusing the administration of misrepresenting their findings in its technical analysis. They say the administration not only manipulated their work on the scrappage model but also on fleet size, compliance costs and other factors (Climatewire, Dec. 7, 2018).

“There were just so many assumptions made in that analysis that are not defensible,” Alson said. “The paper in Science magazine was just one example.”

Reporter Sean Reilly contributed.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news