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WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Thursday put forth its long-awaited proposal to freeze antipollution and fuel-efficiency standards for cars, significantly weakening one of President Barack Obama’s signature policies to combat global warming.
The proposed new rules would also challenge the right of states, California in particular, to set their own, more stringent tailpipe pollution standards. That would set the stage for a legal clash that could ultimately split the nation’s auto market in two.
The administration’s plans immediately faced opposition from an unusual mix of critics — including not only environmentalists and consumer groups but auto-industry representatives as well as individual states — who are now launching efforts to change the plan before it is finalized.
The plan, jointly published by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Transportation Department, would roll back a 2012 rule that required automakers to nearly double the fuel economy of passenger vehicles to an average of about 54 miles per gallon by 2025. It would halt requirements that automakers build cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars including hybrids and electric vehicles.
That Obama-era rule, which aimed to cut the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions while reducing oil consumption, was opposed by automakers who said it was overly burdensome. However, Thursday’s proposal goes much further than many major automakers wanted, and manufacturers are now worried that years of legal challenges and regulatory uncertainty could complicate their business.
The governor of California, Jerry Brown, said his state was prepared to fight. “For Trump to now destroy a law first enacted at the request of Ronald Reagan five decades ago is a betrayal and an assault on the health of Americans everywhere,” he said.
In a statement titled “Make Cars Great Again” that was published Thursday on The Wall Street Journal’s website, Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao and Andrew Wheeler, the acting administrator of the E.P.A., wrote that the Obama-era standards would “impose significant costs on American consumers and eliminate jobs.” Their new proposal, they said, would “give consumers greater access to safer, more affordable vehicles, while continuing to protect the environment.”
Their proposal would freeze the increase of average fuel economy standards after 2021 at about 37 miles per gallon. It would also revoke a legal waiver, granted to California under the 1970 Clean Air Act and now followed by 13 other states, that lets those states set pollution standards that are more stringent than the federal government’s.
Administration officials have said that, by promoting lighter cars, the Obama-era standards could lead to about 12,700 more auto fatalities over the coming 13 years.
“This rule promises to save lives,” said Heidi King, the Transportation Department’s acting administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, during a Thursday conference call. “It could save up to a thousand lives annually by reducing these barriers that prevent consumers from getting into newer, safer cars,” said Ms. King, who was also an author of the proposal and pushed the new traffic safety analysis.
William Wehrum, the E.P.A.’s Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation, added, “There is a tension between calling for ever-increasing efficiency standards on one hand, and the obligation to have safe vehicles on the road.”
That conclusion forms the basis of the current administration’s reasoning on rolling back the rule. However, it clashes with the Obama administration’s analysis of the same rule, which found that improving fuel-economy standards would actually lead to about 100 fewer auto-related casualties over the next 13 years.
Some experts have disputed the accuracy of the new analysis.“The administration’s effort to roll back these standards is a denial of basic science and a denial of American automakers’ engineering capabilities and ingenuity,” said John DeCicco, an expert on transportation technology at the University of Michigan.
Because the proposal would revoke states’ rights to set their own pollution standards, a group of 19 state attorneys general announced their plans to sue the administration if it finalizes the rule. The attorneys general said they expected to focus on the claim that cleaner cars would lead to more crash fatalities.
“The case we’ll make is that the data and science do not back up what they’re trying to do,” said Josh Shapiro, the attorney general of Pennsylvania, which follows the more stringent California clean-air rules.
Allies of the Trump administration cheered the plan, but few industries spoke up in its favor, even among those that the proposal might benefit. The American Petroleum Institute, which represents the oil business — which stands to gain if the rule change creates a greater demand for gasoline — did not put out a public statement on the proposal.
The announcement “is good news for consumers,” said Myron Ebell, who directs the energy and environment program at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian advocacy group, and who advised the Trump administration’s E.P.A. transition team. “It means that the federal government will have slightly less control over the kinds of cars and trucks people can buy. It might even cause car prices to stop increasing so rapidly.”
Mr. Ebell went on to describe the move to revoke California’s right to set its own standards as “even better news.”
“Letting one state make decisions for people in other states makes a bad program even worse, especially since the state is California, which has been pursuing an anti-car agenda for decades,” Mr. Ebell said.
This week’s publication of the proposed rule in the federal register marks a significant legal step in the process of weakening the Obama rule. The administration will next ask the public to formally submit comments before issuing a final version of the rule, most likely this year.
The government’s ideas have met with criticism even from some of the automakers that Mr. Trump has said he wants the plan to help. While the chief executives of auto companies last year asked Mr. Trump to loosen the Obama-era rules, they have since asked him not to pull them back quite so far.
Their concern is that any lawsuit by the states could ultimately tangle the rules in litigation for years, leaving automakers caught in regulatory uncertainty.
Furthermore, if the administration ultimately lost the court battle, it could split the nation’s auto market in two, with the federal government enforcing one set of emissions standards and a group of major states including California enforcing their own separate and stricter rules. Automakers have called that a worst-case scenario.
Maura Healey, the attorney general of Massachusetts, said, “Once again, the E.P.A. has handed decision-making to fossil fuel lobbyists and climate change deniers, while sticking the American people with the bill. Together with California, and 19 other states, my office will be suing to stop this terrible proposal.”
That legal threat is what worries the nation’s automakers, who will now urge the Trump administration to go back to the table and find a way to strike a deal with California and the other states before issuing a final proposal.
“With today’s release of the administration’s proposals, it’s time for substantive negotiations to begin,” Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said in a statement. “We urge California and the federal government to find a common sense solution that sets continued increases in vehicle efficiency standards while also meeting the needs of America’s drivers.”
Speaking to a Senate panel on Wednesday, Mr. Wheeler, the acting head of the E.P.A., said he would like to find a way to avoid a legal showdown with California. “It’s my goal to come up with a 50-state solution that does not necessitate pre-empting California.”
Mr. Wheeler’s views have clashed with those of others in the administration, particularly in the White House and at the Transportation Department, who are understood to be spoiling for a fight with California.
Behind the scenes, Mr. Wheeler and Mr. Wehrum have sought to distance themselves from the auto-fatality analysis put forth by Ms. King, out of concern that the numbers might be susceptible to legal challenge, according to 12 people familiar with the internal deliberations.
Mr. Wehrum acknowledged Thursday that the two agencies had had “long and spirited conversations” while drafting the rules, and expressed hope that a final deal could eventually be reached with California. “We’re all going to get together again and try to find a middle ground,” he said. “No one wants a two-car world where there are one set of cars on one side of the country and one on the other. That makes no sense.”
Also urging the Trump administration to go back to the drawing board will be the nation’s manufacturers of auto parts and components. Those companies say that the uncertainty of a protracted legal battle would freeze investment and innovation in the high-tech auto-parts sector.
“It’s our hope now to prevent a dramatic weakening of the federal standard and further erosion of regulatory certainty, so we can continue to innovate and invest in the United States and cut harmful pollution in a timely fashion,” said Chris Miller, executive director of the Advanced Engine Systems Institute, a trade association of companies that develop pollution-control technology.
Meanwhile, environmentalists will open a campaign to generate public comments opposing the rollback. At the same time, some industry interests are expected to try to negotiate behind the scenes to temper the proposed rules in order to minimize the prospects of the California legal showdown.