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  April 11, 2018

Amid Scandals, Pruitt Puts the Brakes on Auto Regulation

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's spending habits and association with energy lobbyists are under scrutiny, but the bigger scandal is the rollback of more than 20 environmental protections, including Obama-era clean-car regulations. We speak to retired autoworker Frank Hammer, UC Berkeley's Climate Program Director Ethan Elkind, and Greenpeace USA's Natalie Nava
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Frank Hammer is a retired General Motors employee, former President and Chairman of UAW Local 909 in Warren, Michigan, and a retired UAW-GM International Representative. He's a co-founder of the Autoworker Caravan, a network of progressive active and retired auto workers.

Ethan Elkind is the Director of the Climate Program at the UC Berkeley School of Law, with a joint appointment at the UCLA School of Law. He researches and writes on policies that would boost business solutions to combat climate change. His latest book is titled "Railtown" it focuses on the history of the Los Angeles Metro Rail. For more visit

Natalie Nava is a Project Leader at Greenpeace USA. She leads the organizationís campaigning on transportation, and her current focus is targeting Ford Motor Company to support strong fuel standards


DHARNA NOOR: Welcome to the Real News Network. I'm Dharna Noor joining you from Baltimore. The Trump administration is continuing its assault on environmental regulations, this time taking aim at air pollution standards for automobiles. The Obama era standards set five years ago called to nearly double vehicles' fuel efficiency by 2025. But EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt called those standards inappropriate, and says he'll revise them.

SCOTT PRUITT: This is another step. This is another step in the president's regulatory agenda, deregulatory agenda. The importance of auto manufacturing in this country. The president again is saying America is going to be put first, and we have nothing to be apologetic about.

DHARNA NOOR: The venue for that announcement actually had to be relocated to the D.C. EPA headquarters after the automaker Chevrolet refused to let Pruitt make the announcement at one of their sales rooms. In the days following the Wall Street Journal reported that the Trump administration is, quote, pursuing ways to protect domestic vehicle manufacturing by forcing imported cars to meet stricter environmental rules when entering the country.

Now joining me to talk about all of this are three guests. First we have Natalie Nava. Natalie is a project leader at Greenpeace USA. She leads the organization's campaigning on transportation, and her current focus is targeting the Ford Motor Company to support strong fuel standards. Next we have Ethan Elkind. Ethan is the director of the climate program at the Center for Law, Energy, and the Environment, and he leads the Climate Change and Business Research Initiative on behalf of the UC Berkeley and UCLA School of Law. And lastly, we have Frank Hammer. Frank is the former president and chairman of the UAW Local 909 in Warren, Michigan, and he's also a co-founder of the Auto Worker Caravan, a network of progressive and active retired auto workers. He's also on the board of the Real News Network.

So thanks to all three of you for joining me today. And Natalie, I want to start with you. Scott Pruitt said the Obama administration set the average fleetwide fuel efficiency standards, quote, too high. He said they, quote, made assumptions about the standards that didn't comport with reality. Your organization made a parody video of a Ford ad. Let's take a look at that.

PARODY AD: Ford. We know that your family's safety comes first. But you shouldn't have to compromise luxury and versatility to protect the ones that matter most. That's why the all new Ford Future combines best in class performance with innovative safety features. New for 2018: outdoor masks, standard in every vehicle. As the fuel standards that protect our air get rolled back, Ford has you covered. Prepare your family for the atmosphere we're creating with the Ford Future.

DHARNA NOOR: So again, Pruitt says the Obama standards didn't comport with reality. But how will these new standards affect the realities of pollution, and public health, and climate change?

NATALIE NAVAN: Yeah, well, it's a great question. And we think that this announcement is just a real disaster for public health and the planet. And we also think for the auto industry itself. So I'm glad we're going to dig into that a little bit today. So dirty cars mean more dirty air, and that's, that's bad for all of us. But it's especially problematic for the most vulnerable populations among us. So whether it's children, whether it's the elderly, or low-income communities, or communities of color who are disproportionately living near freeways or other sorts of pollution, you know, this is just going to mean more dirty air heating up our climate and filling up our lungs.

DHARNA NOOR: Yeah. It's also maybe worth mentioning that the terms climate change and public health are completely absent in the Environmental Protection Agency's revised final determination, where they outlined that auto efficiency standards enacted by the Obama administration are too strong. But turning to you, Frank, what's the effect going to be on consumers? Will the Trump administration's rollbacks on air pollution control standards make cars cheaper? And then, I guess, what about the additional costs of gas that come with less fuel efficient car?

FRANK HAMMER: So, to the last point, there are some estimates I have seen that the automakers were going to pay, like, $200 million more in terms of car development, and so on. But it would have a net savings result on consumers, like $ 1.3 billion in terms of fuel cost in the long run. So it's a real specious argument that it would be, the cars are going to be more expensive and priced out of the market. On the contrary, it would be cheaper to own and use for consumers. I know that for UAW members such as myself that the big hook out there is about, oh, you know, we're going to bring back jobs. And I'll be the first one to say that I'm concerned about job creation. But I think it's a specious argument. The job creation is really going on mostly in new high tech. For example, auto suppliers, Michigan, for example, had 70000 jobs in the high tech suppliers in 224 different locations, just in the state of Michigan.

DHARNA NOOR: And what's the auto industry's role been all, in all of this? I mean, you know, one might think that the auto industry would be getting behind this. But then why would Chevy not let permit use their salesroom to make his announcement?

FRANK HAMMER: So going back to the history of when the CAFE standards actually first began in 1975, the auto industry has been a consistent opponent of any CAFE standards, go going back to the, you know, the oil embargo. And every step of the way they've used these specious arguments about, oh, we don't have the technology. Oh, it's going to destroy jobs, oh, we won't be able to sell cars bigger than a Ford Pinto, was one argument. And its role historically has been resistant. The agreements came about during the Obama administration were in part due to the U.S. government bailout. That's when the auto companies agreed that they would raise their standards to what was e stablished for 2017-2025. And now they're reneging on those promises.

DHARNA NOOR: And then what about what the effects of this will be on the auto business globally? Ethan, I guess, turning to you, do you think that this is going to leave the U.S. auto sector lagging behind the rest of the world efficiency standards?

ETHAN ELKIND: Yes. So I think it'll definitely hurt the economic competitiveness of the U.S. automaker industry. As Frank just described to some extent, the reality is, is that around the world we're seeing whole countries and their domestic automaker industries moving towards cleaner vehicles. So India, China, countries like the UK have already pledged to have a zero emission vehicle future by a date certain. So is moving towards cleaner cars, or it's battery electric cars. And these standards here in the United States were a way to encourage automakers and essentially reward them for also making that transition.

So by trying to roll the standards back at the federal level definitely I think will hurt our long term competitiveness. And there's no question that in terms of our climate change goals, transportation is the single biggest emitter in the United States. Greenhouse gases from all the driving that we do. I mean the state's where I'm in, in California, it's actually almost 50 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions when you factor in the emissions from oil refineries, as well. So it's a big setback in terms of our competitiveness here and also in terms of tackling climate change.

DHARNA NOOR: Yeah, with this new announcement of Trump's plan to tax car imports and then also previous tariffs on solar panels it seems sort of like he's singling out mechanisms by which to move to forms of renewable energy and transport.

ETHAN ELKIND: There's no question at all that supporters of Trump's campaign, the big industries, the polluting industries, have moved all of their people, their sympathetic allies and advocates, into positions in these agencies to have these regulatory rollbacks. The one bright spot is that they're not actually having a huge amount of success right now in the courts. So Pruitt can make these kinds of announcements, but the reality is is that he's going to have to go through some judicial checks on what he does going forward. All this statement is is that it's going to roll back what Obama's EPA negotiated. But now they've got to start a new rulemaking process going forward. And I think it's very likely they're going to get sued, because overturning the Obama standards without doing the hard work of developing the record, the facts, the technical analyses, you're going to get dinged in court for taking that step. And then to put in new standards is going to require a whole new regulatory process that often takes years, lots of lawsuits to resolve. So we're not quite there yet, but the signal is very clear from this administration that if you're a polluter or you've got a friend in the Trump administration.

DHARNA NOOR: Switching gears a little bit, Natalie and Ethan, you're both calling in from California. And California has long been allowed by an EPA waiver to impose stricter standards than Washington does on vehicle emissions of some pollutants. But the New York Times recently reported that negotiations are quietly taking place behind closed doors between the Trump administration and California officials for a deal on car emissions between them. If California is exempt from the EPA's rollback of emission standards, would that make the rollbacks more acceptable? I mean, 12 other states, including New York, and Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts follow California's lead on cleaner cars. So Natalie, what would the effect of that be if California was exempt?

NATALIE NAVAN: Right. So I think at this point it's too soon to say. But it's definitely important, as you mentioned, to highlight the fact that California and these other states are allowed, they have this waiver that allows them to set these higher standards. And together these states make up about 30 percent of the market for the auto industry. So that's not insignificant.

So again, it's too soon to say. I definitely underscore Ethan's point that, you know, this announcement isn't any, isn't any final ruling or final law. So we really just need to see what the new proposal is. I suspect there is going to be just a wealth of legal battles. But of course, you know, at Greenpeace we absolutely support the right of California to maintain this waiver, because if the feds aren't setting these higher standards we definitely want the states to be able to do so to protect clean air, especially in a state like California, which is so transport and traffic heavy.

DHARNA NOOR: And Ethan and Frank, Could this in any way affect the move to more electric vehicle manufacturing?

ETHAN ELKIND: Well, I can weigh in on some of that. First of all, just a bit of background on the waiver. The Clean Air Act gave California the ability to set more aggressive standards than what would be set federally in recognition of California's leadership role on air quality and the environment. And often California has pioneered standards that the rest of the country has ended up adopting, and I think are more aggressive, essentially fuel economy standards, because we have greenhouse gas tailpipe emissions standards that kind of worked together with federal fuel economy standards, I think are an example of that. And having this big market, as [Natalie] just referenced, makes it more challenging for the automakers if they have to sell dirty cars to some parts of the United States and then turn around and have to manufacture new, more fuel-efficient vehicles for this 30 percent of the market that's following California's standards.

So definitely the waiver is something that California has as a right from the Clean Air Act, and we've never seen a federal EPA actually revoke an existing waiver. The Pruitt EPA has not yet said they're going in that direction, but they're looking at it. So what would be interesting to see what happens. But in the meantime they have this existing waiver. The electric vehicle program that you asked about is actually pursuant to a separate waiver. So right now, California has the sovereignty to mandate that automakers produce a certain amount of electric vehicles for every vehicle that they sell in California, or they have to buy credits to achieve that. And that mandate isn't going to go away unless EPA first tries to revoke that waiver, and second is actually successful in doing so after, I'm sure, all the litigation court challenges have taken place. But I think it's unlikely that will happen.

Certainly going forward, thinking into the 2020s, into 2030, California is going to seek, need to seek new waivers. And so if Trump gets a second term, if Republicans and these fossil fuel allies maintain power at the federal level, it's definitely then going to start to hurt California and our zero emission vehicle program, as well as all the other states that have joined in. But for right now that program is safe. They don't have the long-term certainty that many of us, and probably those in the auto maker industry as well, would like to have. But it is still there.

DHARNA NOOR: Frank, do you want to chime in?

FRANK HAMMER: Yeah. I mean, I think that the elephant in the room has to do with the question of the climate crisis, and clearly the direction that coming from Washington, from Trump and Pruitt, is coming from a cabal of climate change deniers. That's really clear. Yet if we look at the ferocity of hurricanes, Harvey, Maria, and Irma, those were the three most expensive hurricanes in terms of disaster relief and reconstruction in our history, and they all occurred last year. And I think that should be a signal to us that we really do have to change our technologies and change the means by which we transport ourselves to reduce our carbon emissions and to, you know, go to a zero carbon world, zero carbon emission transportation.

So I think that that's the direction that we need to go in. And I say that as an autoworker. We need to convert our factories to produce electric cars, and also public transit systems that are far more friendly to the environment.

DHARNA NOOR: Natalie, the federal government's top government ethics official has taken the rather unusual step of asking the EPA's officials to look into news reports of Administrator Scott Pruitt's spending habits. His condo lease has been linked to energy lobbyists. He's under scrutiny for racking up expenses for taxpayers with first class airline flights and security. Should there be more focus, though, on the costs of him rolling back some 22 environmental regulations?

NATALIE NAVAN: Absolutely. Well, you know, whatever is going to resonate with folks, we need to get Scott Pruitt out. He is just another in a long line of corrupt people that are, that are leading our government and now putting our air and our health at risk. So I say whatever's going to get people to reach out to Congress and say that Pruitt needs to go I'm ok with.

It's worth noting that whoever comes in after Scott Pruitt might be just as bad or even worse. But again, you know, in this administration we have gotten used to a lot of inflammatory comments that then proved to be untenable, or just can't move forward because of, you know, legalities. So it's important for people to understand that we have an opportunity to really throw sand in the gears. And getting Scott Pruitt out of his position is just another way that we can delay this moving forward and these, these standards being slashed and rolled back.

DHARNA NOOR: Ethan, did you have something that you wanted to add?

ETHAN ELKIND: So I would agree that, you know, that there would be advantages from an environmental perspective to getting rid of Scott Pruitt, if all these ethical lapses are are sufficient to do so. And we have an example of this. Neil Gorsuch, the Supreme Court justice's mother was EPA director under Ronald Reagan in his first term, and had similar types of scandals, was booted out for a more moderate EPA administrator. The difference is you had a Democratic-controlled Congress. So I think the real key here is are Democrats going to be able to take Congress back in November, because that will allow for proper congressional oversight over the EPA for not just all of these ethical lapses and potential abuses of power, and the taxpayer trust and dollars and all that, but also for these policy decisions.

And then the final thing I'd say is that Pruitt has a lot of support among conservatives because he's had these flashy press conferences announcing regulatory rollbacks. And I get the sense that a lot of conservatives think that it's all a done deal, all these regulations are actually rolled back. And they don't understand how long it takes to actually get these regulations overturned. It can take years. And in many cases they're not going to be successful, as the courts review what appears to be a lot of shoddy work done by the EPA. So first of all, I don't think it is as successful as a lot of conservatives think he is. And secondly, I do think it will take some elections in November to find out if we're really going to have proper oversight over not just the ethics, but the policy decisions coming out of the EPA.

DHARNA NOOR: And lastly, Frank, is there any chance that these deregulations could actually make for more jobs in the American auto industry because it will be easier to produce these cars? Or will we see more of an influx of jobs if we shift to a greener and more sustainable auto emission standards and automobiles?

FRANK HAMMER: Yeah, I'm inclined to argue the latter. As I was mentioning earlier, there's a burgeoning industry in more fuel efficient vehicles in the state of Michigan. As I mentioned earlier, the map of Michigan is dotted with new companies producing components for more fuel efficient vehicles, electric vehicles and so on. So I think that, I think that's the road to the future, as being mentioned earlier. A good part of the world is going in that direction. Norway, for example, is already 25 percent electric cars.

I want to point out that when the Korean free trade agreement was negotiated about a decade ago, the Koreans had to lower their fuel efficiency standards to allow reimportation of U.S. cars, and I don't expect that that's going to continue in the future. So if we're going to have a market, a global market for U.S. vehicles, that's the direction we're going to go and that's going to be where job creation is going to take place.

DHARNA NOOR: All right. Well, as we see how these regulations, or deregulations, shake out we hope to talk to all three of you again. So thanks to the three of you for speaking with me today, and thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.

Photo Credit: DonkeyHotey


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