WASHINGTON, March 15 (Reuters) - President Donald Trump’s plans to reassess strict U.S. vehicle fuel-efficiency standards put in place under former President Barack Obama drew criticism on Wednesday from Democrats and environmental groups who accused him of risking more carbon emissions and higher fuel costs.
The move by Trump - to be announced on a trip to the heart of America’s auto industry in suburban Detroit - is a victory for automakers which say the current rules are too expensive, could cost jobs and are out of step with vehicles consumers want to buy.
But the Republican president will not seek to revoke California’s authority to set vehicle efficiency rules even stricter than federal rules as part of this move, a White House official said. The official did not rule out seeking to withdraw California’s authority in the future.
The Obama administration’s rules, negotiated with automakers in 2012, were aimed at doubling average fleetwide fuel efficiency to 54.5 mpg by 2025. In January, shortly before Trump took office, Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency locked that goal in place in a move that disappointed car manufacturers.
A White House official said Trump will announce that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will reverse the Obama administration’s action to lock in the standards and will spend a year reviewing whether those rules are feasible. The administration has made no decisions on how or if the standards should be revised, the official said.
Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council environmental group, called the move another part of Trump’s retreat from action to combat climate change.
“This change makes no sense,” Suh said. “Mileage standards save consumers money at the gas pump, make Americans less dependent on oil, reduce carbon pollution and advance innovation. The current standards helped the auto companies move from bankruptcy to profitability, and there is no reason they cannot be met.”
In Michigan, Trump will meet with chief executives from General Motors Co, Ford Motor Co and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and top U.S. executives from Toyota Motor Corp, Daimler AG and others, and speak to autoworkers.
Democratic Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts said Trump’s move will lead to needless uncertainty for the auto industry.
“Filling up their cars and trucks is the energy bill Americans pay most often, but President Trump’s roll-back of fuel economy emissions standards means families will end up paying more at the pump,” Markey added.
Under the 2012 agreement with the industry, the EPA was given until April 2018 to decide whether the standards were feasible under a “midterm review,” but the agency moved up its decision to a week before Obama left office in a bid to maintain a key part of his administration’s environmental legacy.
Automakers say they need more flexibility to meet the rules amid low gas prices. Environmentalists have vowed to sue if the Trump administration weakens them.
California, the most populous U.S. state, has long drawn the ire of automakers for setting more aggressive environmental vehicle rules, including requiring zero emission cars.
Thirteen other states have adopted California rules that account for about 40 percent of U.S. vehicle sales.
California has a waiver under the Clean Air Act to set its own vehicle rules and has said it would vigorously fight any effort to revoke it.
Trump’s EPA chief, Scott Pruitt, an ally of the fossil fuel industry, would not commit during his Senate confirmation hearing to allowing California to continue its own clean vehicle rules.
Each Detroit automaker will bring about 500 people to Trump’s event on Wednesday, bused in from auto plants, technical centers and headquarters. The automakers said they wanted an array of union hourly workers, salaried office workers and engineers as well as executives at the event.
In the United States, which accounts for about 10 percent of global gasoline usage, demand hit a record in 2016, averaging 9.3 million barrels per day, surpassing 2007 levels, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Changes in fuel efficiency standards in the United States can dictate investment decisions due to the country’s heavy consumption of the fuel.
Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Leslie Adler and Alistair Bell