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Could Trump Scuttle the EPA’s New Car Rules?

Not no, but not yes, either.

Donald Trump.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

The D.C. Armory is big enough to fit an F-150 Lightning, a hybrid Jeep Compass, and a Cadillac Lyriq, with room to spare for an elephant.

That elephant was in the room on Wednesday when Michael Regan, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, along with National Climate Advisor Ali Zaidi announced the Biden administration’s finalized vehicle emissions standards, flanked onstage by plugged-in models from GM, Ford, and Stellantis. That element is the invisible, though nevertheless looming possibility of a second Trump administration.

Though climate advocates and environmental groups have celebrated the EPA’s rules for pushing the country closer to its net zero goals (while also lamenting that the rules didn’t go as far as planned), threats have been mounting. Perhaps none is more concerning than Trump’s potential return to the White House with the Project 2025 playbook in hand. The Heritage Foundation-authored blueprint for a Republican president explicitly describes dismantling the EPA and singles out as a priority reviewing “the existing ‘ramp rate’ for car standards to ensure that it is actually achievable.”

When Trump last took office, he replaced, eliminated, or otherwise undid more than 100 environmental rules, including Obama-era vehicle emissions standards. When I spoke to environmental lawyers at the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund, though, they stressed that the EPA’s regulations make it difficult for an unfriendly executive branch to shake them off.

If a future administration were to want to change the rules finalized this week, it would have to go through “a full rulemaking process,” Peter Zalzal, a member of EDF’s Domestic Climate and Air legal team, told me. That would include “a proposal that laid out the agency’s rationale for making those choices, and the facts supporting that rationale, and then hold a public comment process to incorporate stakeholder feedback.” Only after going through all that would it be able to take decisive action.

While it is possible that a Trump administration would attempt this, a senior advisor to the NRDC Action Fund, stressed that groups like theirs would fight tooth and nail to halt such a rollback. There are plenty of stages in the EPA rulemaking process where environmental groups could intervene, including by taking the administration to court.

Trouble might start even sooner than January, though. By Thursday morning, there were already multiple reports of Republican attorneys general who had “warned the EPA against rolling out more aggressive tailpipe emissions standards,” and opponents in Congress had filed a bipartisan resolution to undo the rule. There’s even a world in which a decision could be punted up to the Supreme Court, whose recent decisions have been hostile toward the EPA’s regulatory powers. Additionally, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers trade group is planning a seven-figure ad spend across seven states “against the new rules heading into the 2024 election,” Kelley Blue Book reports, including an effort to brand them as a “gas car ban.”

The rules are definitively not a ban, and automakers are generally on board with them. “It’s just not a case that these standards require any kind of particular technologies,” Zalzal, from EDF, told me. “In fact, we’ve done modeling to show that manufacturers could meet these by selling very few battery electric vehicles.” (He added that, to be clear, that isn’t the expectation). Generally, experts seem to agree that the rules are on solid legal footing.

Still, it’s better to be safe than sorry. As my colleague Matthew Zeitlin has reported, California has quietly been working behind the scenes to get automakers to voluntarily comply with the regulations — and, in that way, sneakily “Trump-proof” the electrification push.

After all, that’s the one thing you can count on with elephants: You can see them coming.


Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City. Read More

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