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TRAVERSE CITY — Chris Grundler, head of the air quality division of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, struck a cooperative rather than combative tone Tuesday as he outlined the agency’s desire to work with the automotive industry as the EPA restructures greenhouse gas emission regulations.

“I think we have a convergence of interests here with the administration’s focus on regulatory reform,” Grundler said. “I think it presents a golden opportunity for us to rethink how emissions get done.”

Grundler’s comments were in stark contrast to his comments one year ago at the same podium at an industry conference called the Management Briefing Seminars, when he defended tough standards for greenhouse emissions by 2025.

“Last year felt like the Thrilla in Manila, and this year it feels like we are smoking the peace pipe,” said Mitch Bainwol, CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a group that represents both foreign and domestic automakers.

Grundler made the case last year that the existing greenhouse gas emissions standards adopted in 2011 were attainable and did not need to be changed. They were to have ushered in much tougher standards between 2021 and 2025.

This year, Grundler said the EPA is reviewing new data, new consumer preferences and new ways to provide incentives that will encourage automakers to develop cars with lower greenhouse gas emissions and higher fuel economy.

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“We’ve heard this loud and clear. … It’s not just about the technology. It’s about the market, it’s about the consumers,” Grundler said. “You felt that we did not do an adequate job of listening to consumers. You have asked us to do more, and we are doing more.”

So what changed? In short, the election of Donald Trump as president. In March the Trump administration announced that the EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would be reinstating a mid-term evaluation of standards adopted in 2011.

That reinstatement of the review process gives the EPA until April 1 to make a final decision about the regulations automakers must meet from 2021 to 2025.

The industry argues that technology, gas prices and consumer preferences have all evolved differently than expected. Gas prices are lower and consumers have not embraced electric vehicles as much as regulators projected back in 2011.

Only 3% of new vehicles sold this year are hybrid, plug-in hybrid or fully electric, according to Auto Alliance. Meanwhile, car sales are falling and consumers are buying far more SUVs, crossovers and pickups than expected.

The industry argues regulations should be adjusted to recognize those realities.

“We didn’t ask for a rollback of the standards. We did not receive a rollback of the standards,” said John Bozzella, CEO of Global Automakers, an industry group that represents foreign automakers that operate in the U.S. “We asked exactly for what Chris Grundler just described … a real review of the standards.”

Grundler also said he is in favor of working towards eliminating areas where EPA regulations for greenhouse gas emission regulations and the the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s fuel economy, or Corporate Average Fuel Economy, standards conflict.

Industry groups say those conflicts cost the industry money because they are trying to meet two different sets of standards.

“I am all in on harmonization. It should not be acceptable for an automaker that is in compliance with EPA standards to at the same time face penalties under CAFE,” Grundler said.

But not everyone is riding the peace train. Earlier this year the California Air Resources Board reaffirmed its own set of regulatory standards for the automotive industry, setting it — along with 12 other mostly East and West Coast states that follow its lead — on a different path than the rest of the nation.

The 16-member board of California regulators voted unanimously to reaffirm its existing standards for model years 2022-25 for zero-emission vehicle sales and greenhouse gas emissions in California despite pleas from the industry for changes.

That different set of standards forces automakers to develop cars for two very different regulatory environments and is unworkable, according to industry groups.

But Annette Hebert, chief of the emissions division of CARB, made it clear she sees little room for compromise and suggested the industry has not made enough of an effort to work through problems.

“I think we have to get a call to come to the table. We have not really been invited,” Hebert said.

Hebert said CARB is more concerned with the standards it is developing for automakers to meet from 2025 to 2030.

“We have to talk about 2030, and we have to maintain the state’s commitments to air quality,” she said.

Contact Brent Snavely: 313-222-6512 or bsnavely@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @BrentSnavely.

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