House panel votes to bar EPA tailpipe emission regulations

David Shepardson / Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington— A House panel approved a bill to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating tailpipe emissions — but the measure's future is uncertain.

The bill sponsored by Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., would overturn a 2007 Supreme Court decision that said the EPA has the legal right to regulate tailpipe emissions as a danger to public health under the Clean Air Act.

The committee's Energy and Power subcommittee, after two hours of debate, approved the measure by a voice vote. House Republicans are putting the measure on a fast track, with opening statements planned for Monday by the full committee and a vote by the full House later this month.

The 2007 Supreme Court decision opened the door to California imposing its own tailpipe emissions limits. The prospect of state and federal emissions limits has been harshly criticized by automakers.

In the wake of the decision, the Obama administration reached a deal with California and automakers in May 2009 to set nationwide standards for the 2012-16 model years that will hike fleet-wide fuel efficiency to 34.1 mpg by 2016. The deal essentially extended California's proposed standards nationwide, but gave automakers additional flexibility in early years.

California's standards were adopted by a dozen other states.

"We feel it is not right that California should be dictating standards for the rest of the country," Whitfield said.

The measure will cost the auto industry about $52 billion over five years, but also save 1.8 billion barrels of fuel over the life of the vehicles. The Obama administration says it would save $3,000 per vehicle in gas over the life of the vehicles.

The administration is working on the 2017-2025 regulations and California is also working on its own proposal. Both proposals are to be issued in September.

The administration is considering annual 3 to 6 percent increases during that time frame, which would require a fleetwide average of 47 to 62 mpg by 2025.

The Republican bill would bar EPA from taking part in setting future standards — and would bar California from limiting tailpipe emissions.

Instead, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would have sole authority to set Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards.

Republican authors of the bill argue that it would not overturn the 2012-16 fuel efficiency and tailpipe emissions standards, but Democrats argue that the bill actually would nullify those rules.

At a minimum, the NHTSA regulations would not be impacted by the law, but Democrats note that NHTSA can't regulate air conditioning emissions.

Upton said allowing EPA to reduce greenhouse gas pollution would cost "American families even more at the pump, at the grocery store and on their home heating bills."

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., called that "laughable."

The bill "is anti-science: a know-nothing, do-nothing approach to the most challenging environmental problem of our time," Waxman said. "It is an echo of earlier eras, when powerful forces sought to repudiate Copernicus and Galileo and Darwin."

Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., praised General Motors Co. and its extended-range Chevrolet Volt, saying Congress should help businesses "innovate."

He argued the bill would give automakers less incentive to do more to reduce fuel use.

"It takes our foot off the gas pedal of innovation," Inslee said.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers — the trade association representing Detroit's Big Three automakers and Toyota Motor Corp. — hasn't taken a position, saying it is still "reviewing" the bill.

"The alliance's top public policy priority is to ensure one national program to regulate vehicle fuel economy," the automakers said in a statement. "A national program that reflects the input and consideration of all stakeholders is the only way to deliver maximum energy savings and environmental benefits without negative impacts on affordability, jobs, safety or consumer choice."

But the National Automobile Dealers Association has endorsed the bill.

"It gets California and EPA out of the fuel economy business after 2016 and reverts to a fuel economy standard that recognizes important economic and consumer demand factors," said spokesman Bailey Wood. "We do, though, have to acknowledge the political realities of its future."

The Senate is unlikely to approve the bill and the Obama administration opposes it.