You know how newer cars are rated to drive a certain number of miles per gallon of fuel? That number is regulated by the federal government. Since 1978, the U.S. has required that cars achieve steadily better fuel economy. Earlier this year, however, the Trump Administration announced a new rule that would revoke some fuel economy standards set by the Obama administration. And a recent hearing in Fresno showed just how contentious the rule is.
In late September, the EPA and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration didn’t just get a hearing—they got an earful. Hundreds of people traveled from across California to speak in a downtown Fresno ballroom usually reserved for weddings and quinceañeras.
Angel Garcia is a community organizer in Exeter. He took the day off from work to come to the hearing -- and he got about 20 other Tulare County residents to come with him. “It’s not often that hearings like this are held in our region to begin with, so this is definitely an opportunity to have the community voice their concerns to U.S. EPA directly,” he says.
For many in his group, the trip meant lost wages or a scramble to find childcare. Still, they made it to the hearing—in matching T-shirts, no less. They testified in English and Spanish, sharing their fears of what less efficient cars would mean for air quality and their health.
These residents of Porterverville, Tulare and other communities could have submitted their concerns in writing, but Garcia says it was important to them to testify in person. “Often these spaces of decision making are not very reflective of our communities,” he says, of state and federal agencies. “Yet they are the ones that make decisions that impact our communities.”
Over 130 people signed up to speak that day—including Dan Reich, who drove down from the Bay Area. He’s retired now, but before that, he worked almost 30 years as a lawyer with the EPA. “I worked for Republican and Democratic administrations, five of them, and I always felt good about what I did,” he says. “But I actually feel ashamed about what the EPA is doing.”
Reich is worried about greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, and what he sees as anti-science rhetoric coming out of the Trump administration. “I need to do something,” he says, “so that I can use what I have learned to highlight [the rule] for people and how it might affect their personal lives.”
President Obama mandated that fuel economy continue improving through the year 2026. But President Trump’s so-called SAFE Vehicles Rule freezes fuel economy in 2021. So, by 2026, cars would achieve an average of 37 miles per gallon—nearly a third lower than Obama’s goal of 54.5 miles per gallon.
The rule would result in more gas consumed and more tailpipe emissions than under Obama’s standards. It would also revoke the waiver that allows California to set its own fuel economy standards.
“This is a major issue for us,” says Sarah Rees, assistant deputy executive officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District. “We’re very concerned about both the impacts on air quality from rolling back the standards as well as the precedent that it would set for rolling back the waiver for California.”
The South Coast air district regulates the air basin over Los Angeles, which shares the dubious honor of being one of the two most polluted air basins in the country—along with the San Joaquin Valley. Rees testified at the hearing—one of only three nationwide and the only one on the West Coast—but no one from the San Joaquin Valley air district even showed up.
That’s a lost opportunity, says Dolores Barajas-Weller, executive director of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition. “To be completely absent sends, I think, a very confusing signal,” she says.
Confusing because the air district has been advocating for years for tighter restrictions on vehicle emissions —the exact opposite of what this rule would do. “Given our local authority, which is primarily to regulate stationary sources, we can't meet the standard without our partners at the state and federal level doing everything they can do on the mobile source side,” says Tom Jordan, a senior policy analyst with the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.
But the air district chose to submit its comments in writing rather than to testify. Besides, says Jordan, the potential impacts of this rule are unclear, since carmakers could still choose to manufacture more efficient cars—regardless of what the government requires.
So why freeze fuel economy in the first place? The government claims cars will be cheaper this way. More car sales will stimulate the economy and make roads safer by phasing out older, shoddier vehicles.
Many of those who testified at the hearing, however, argued these are thin arguments—including a strident Attorney General Xavier Becerra. “My message to the federal government: Do your job. Withdraw this proposal,” he said at the hearing. “This is not a time to backslide on our responsibilities.”
So far, the SAFE Vehicles Rule is just a proposed one. If it passes, Becerra and over a dozen other states have promised to sue the EPA. The rule is open for public comment until October 26.
Audio from the Fresno hearing provided by KQED’s Alexandra Hall.