The Department of Transportation said Tuesday that it will weigh freezing vehicle fuel economy standards at their current level and not raise them for model year 2022-2025 cars and trucks.
"A 'no action' alternative" will be considered as the agency puts together its environmental impact analysis for the new model-year rules beginning in 2022, according to a notice issued by the department's National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration that is charged under a 40-year-old law with updating the standards.
The "no action" alternative assumes the rule "would continue the current [Corporate Average Fuel Economy] standards for [model-year] 2021 indefinitely," read the notice that will be published in Wednesday's Federal Register. The National Environmental Policy Act "requires agencies to consider a 'no action' alternative in their NEPA analyses and to compare the effects of not taking action with the effects of reasonable action alternatives in order to demonstrate the different environmental effects of the action alternatives."
The agency said the closest thing to taking "no action," while meeting the requirements of the law, would be for it to extend the current rules indefinitely. It is required to set vehicle standards under a Carter administration law.
The Obama administration made a determination in its waning months to move ahead with the 2022-2025 standards despite protests from automakers that it bypassed a required review period that would last most of 2017. President Trump responded to the industry's complaints by halting the Obama determination and ordering a review.
But Tuesday's news triggered alarm from proponents of the regulations, who said the regulations must be developed or the U.S. risks becoming uncompetitive with global automakers.
"If the department takes this action, it will put the U.S. automakers at a distinct competitive disadvantage to their Asian competitors," said Jack Gillis, public affairs director for the Consumer Federation of America. "This short-sighted thinking by the administration, certain members of Congress and the auto companies ignores global market realities and consumer demand for better mileage. We hope the administration and our Congress stays clear of any rollback or stagnation that forces American families into cars that cost them more at the pump."
The consumer group released a poll Monday that showed consumers want more fuel-efficient vehicles and supports strong fuel economy standards that reduce fuel use.
The poll was released as automakers, environmentalists and others have been meeting at the White House to consider the 2017 review process for the new standards, which must be finalized by the end of next year.
NHTSA and the Environmental Protection Agency must coordinate on developing the joint car regulations, with the Transportation Department handling fuel economy and EPA establishing greenhouse gas reduction targets. The car rules were used by the Obama administration to demonstrate to the United Nations how it would meet the Paris climate change agreement, which Trump said in June he would leave.