WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has dialed back its plan to relax fuel-economy requirements for new automobiles, retreating from a bid to freeze the mandates for six years.

A draft of the final rule, now undergoing a final White House review, includes several changes that could make it easier to defend in court and more palatable to some automakers that had refused to publicly endorse the earlier proposal. The changes were described by three people familiar with the measure who asked for anonymity before a formal announcement.

The Environmental Protection Agency and Transportation Department originally proposed capping mileage and tailpipe greenhouse gas emission requirements after the 2020 model year, thwarting scheduled increases charted under the Obama administration. However, the agencies are now planning to require annual 1.5% increases in the stringency of those requirements for 2021-2026 vehicle fleets, under the draft final rule submitted to the White House for review on Jan. 14.

In addition, the measure would spare automakers from radical changes to the complex system of mile-per-gallon and carbon dioxide emission credits that are used to measure compliance, the people said. And while administration officials had considered scrapping a provision in the rules that rewarded plug-in electric and hybrid vehicles, the incentive is retained in the draft final rule — albeit with changes to make it more technology-neutral, the people said.

The plan could still be revised before it is finalized. Representatives of the EPA and DOT didn’t immediately have comments.

“It’s a lot bigger number than I would have preferred; our position is we want to repeal the whole thing,” said Tom Pyle, president of the American Energy Alliance. “The 1.5% was a calculation that makes it more defendable. All of these things were with an eye to strengthening our case.”

To be sure, the Trump administration has already moved ahead with the most controversial aspect of its sweeping plan to reshape auto efficiency rules by stripping California of its authority to set tailpipe greenhouse gas standards that are tougher than federal requirements. Federal agencies finalized that move last fall, and litigation over the issue is underway now.

The initial proposal recommended freezing efficiency requirements for new autos at 37 miles per gallon starting in model year 2021 instead of rising to closer to a 50 mpg fleet-average by 2026 under a plan enacted by the Obama administration. Trump administration officials argued the shift would reduce the cost of new cars, thereby encouraging consumers to replace older vehicles with newer, safer vehicles, and in turn prevent thousands of traffic fatalities.

Environmental groups, academics and other critics, however, lambasted the proposal for relying on shaky economic modeling. More recently, the panel of scientists that advises the EPA on scientific work underpinning major rules chided the agency over major flaws in the 2018 proposal’s analysis.


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