Concerns with NHTSA Administrator Nominee Heidi King

With the transportation sector surpassing the power sector as the largest source of greenhouse gas pollution in the United States, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is working hard to protect strong federal vehicle emissions and fuel economy standards for passenger cars, trucks, and SUVs.

That’s why Heidi King’s nomination to be administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) raises troubling red flags based on her track record over nearly eight months as deputy administrator of the agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) that is responsible for setting fuel economy standards for light-duty passenger vehicles. NHTSA sets fuel economy standards in conjunction with vehicle emissions standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

King has played an active role drafting a proposal to weaken mileage standards for cars, SUVs and pickup trucks built in model years 2022-2025. A leaked draft of a joint NHTSA-EPA proposal showed the administration’s intent to freeze the standards after 2020, effectively allowing automakers to go five years without improving vehicles’ fuel efficiency or reducing tailpipe emissions. Equally troubling, it omits crucial research used in previous rulemakings and would preempt states’ authority to regulate harmful greenhouse gas emissions.

Separately, King has overseen NHTSA’s unlawful attempt to weaken its authority to enforce fuel economy standards by refusing to update civil penalties meant to ensure that automakers invest in fuel-saving technology.

It’s crucial that King answer the following questions before the Senate votes on her nomination to lead NHTSA:

  • To what degree have you been working with stakeholders as you draft this proposal?  Rewriting our nation’s fuel economy and vehicle emissions standards requires engagement between two federal agencies (EPA and NHTSA), California plus the 12 “Clean Air Act Section 177” states and the District of Columbia who have adopted California’s standards, and the auto industry. King needs to describe who she has met with and when, the outcomes of those meetings, and her plans to collaborate with all stakeholders going forward.
  • Do you really support zero or only slight progress through the next decade?  The recent leaked joint NHTSA-EPA draft proposal for fuel economy and vehicle emissions standards shows that both agencies intend to freeze the existing standards through MY 2025. The preferred approach outlined in the document proposes zero percent increases in standards from MY 2020-2025, which would increase oil consumption by hundreds of billions of gallons through 2050. Even less dramatic rollbacks in CAFE would increase U.S. dependence on oil.
  • Do you plan to preempt state authority?  The leaked NPRM threatens state and local authority by saying “states may not adopt or enforce tailpipe greenhouse gas emissions standards when such standards relate to fuel economy standards and are therefore preempted under EPCA [the Energy Policy and Conservation Act], regardless of whether EPA granted any waivers under the Clean Air Act.” District courts have already upheld California’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles under the Clean Air Act. If this draft proposal moves forward, NHTSA will be illegally trying to preempt this state authority.
  • Do you assume American automakers can’t innovate?  NHTSA is required by law to set the “maximum feasible” standard for each model year, yet its leaked proposal assumes the American auto industry cannot innovate through the 2020s unless fuel standards are significantly weakened. This assumption indicates a lack of confidence in American ingenuity and entrepreneurship which has driven automobile innovation since the beginning of the industry. It forgets that our largest competitors like China and Europe, are growing their markets despite having higher fuel economy standards. If it implements its draft proposal, NHTSA will be weakening the American auto industry’s competitiveness in the global market.
  • Aren’t cars and trucks the safest they’ve ever been, even as their fuel efficiency has increased?  For their original 2017-2025 rulemaking, EPA and NHTSA conservatively estimated that lightweighting, replacing steel with lighter aluminum that is just as strong, could play a significant role in increasing vehicle fuel efficiency without compromising safety. Cars and trucks are the safest they’ve ever been while the fleet has achieved record-high fuel economy. Lightweighting has become a regular industry practice, especially for pickup trucks and SUVs, as described in a recent study by study by Ducker Worldwide.
  • Why is NHTSA trying to undermine its own authority?  NHTSA undermined its own ability to enforce vehicle performance standards by attempting to delay implementation of civil penalties for CAFE violations when auto companies didn’t invest in fuel-efficiency technology. The U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals halted this, but King needs to explain why NHTSA attempted to allow carmakers to pay a cheap fine rather than meet fuel economy standards, burdening consumers with less vehicle choice, higher fuel costs, and more vehicle-related pollution.

About the Authors

Marc Boom

Associate Director, Government Affairs

Dan West

Legislative Advocate, Government Affairs

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