SPECIAL REPORT: Congress to CARB: Try answering mpg questions again

By Charlie Morasch, Land Line staff writer | 12/20/2011

Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011 – Citing “inconsistencies,” a “lack of candor” and a decision to not fully cooperate with Congress’ top investigative committee, a powerful congressman is demanding answers from the California Air Resources Board regarding recent fuel mileage standards for cars and heavy trucks.

In a letter dated Dec. 19, U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-CA, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, fired the latest shot in a back and forth between Issa and CARB Chairman Mary Nichols.

“In light of the troubling inconsistencies in your response, which frankly appear to be a deliberate attempt to mislead Congress and obstruct an official investigation, I must insist that you immediately respond fully to the following questions and provide the requested documents without delay,” Issa wrote. “Anything less will be construed as a failure to cooperate and the Committee will be required to consider the use of the compulsory process.”

In early November, Issa asked Nichols several pointed questions about CARB’s role in the development of an agreement on fuel economy between EPA and several vehicle manufacturers.

Nichols responded with a salty letter of her own in which she denied any wrongdoing and said she hoped the Oversight Committee wouldn’t re-examine arguments she said were legally discredited.

A major point of contention exists surrounding whether CARB’s has the authority to enact fuel mileage standards, and whether CARB’s greenhouse gas emissions rules target fuel mileage without saying so in the regulatory language.

Nichols had characterized the fuel mileage savings as a “happy accident” that has happened while CARB strives to lower vehicle emissions.

Issa pointed out that Nichols’ letter to the committee included “boast(s) about the fuel savings that would result from CARB’s regulatory activities.”

“The reduction in fuel consumption is not accidental or indirect benefit of CARB’s regulatory activities,” Issa wrote. “It is the expected outcome that results from increased fuel economy standards.  Accordingly, it is abundantly clear that CARB’s regulation of greenhouse gasses is ‘related to’ the regulation of fuel economy standards. … CARB cannot escape this conclusion simply by calling its fuel economy regulations by another name.”

Issa also broke new ground in his questioning line. In Monday’s letter, Issa asked several specific questions regarding CARB’s relationship with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. He mentioned Nichols’ own admission that CARB had met with NHTSA staff at least 116 times during discussions about fuel mileage standards.

Nichols had previously downplayed CARB’s interaction with NHTSA, and told Issa CARB had no documents about such interactions to turn over to the congressional committee.

“Seen in this light, your assertion that CARB did not negotiate with NHTSA – and therefore CARB has no responsive documents – appears to be demonstrably false,” Issa wrote.

OOIDA’s government affairs team, which has had a front row seat for the Oversight Committee hearings, has been watching the investigation and contentious back-and-forth closely.

“CARB sort of thinks it has a free hand to set its own standards,” said OOIDA Director of Legislative Affairs Ryan Bowley. “Whether it’s by default or by EPA looking back and trying to nationalize work CARB has already done, CARB’s policies have had national impact for a very long time. This is really the first time they’ve been questioned by a congressional committee that is saying, ‘Hey, what are you all doing out there?’”

Issa previously criticized CARB for not attending an Oct. 12 Committee hearing on the EPA’s greenhouse gas emissions rule, a hearing that OOIDA Member Scott Grenerth testified at on behalf of OOIDA.

Issa’s Nov. 9 letter asked 18 questions, including many multiple-part questions, as well as requests for documentation of the negotiations between CARB, EPA and the White House. The committee asked what technical research in the EPA rule was provided by CARB, which CARB staffers worked on negotiations, and whether group meetings between the agencies were avoided in favor of tightly controlled meetings.

“Do you believe that a closed and secretive process is the best approach for regulating an industry that affects nearly every American?” one question read. “If no, explain in detail why CARB agreed to participate in such a process.”

Issa’s letter Monday includes an additional 17 questions, including as many as six parts to each question and four sub-parts to one part.

In Monday’s letter, Issa again mentioned Nichols interview with The New York Times in which she and EPA representatives agreed to meet but “put nothing in writing, ever.” Issa has repeatedly questioned the need for secrecy. In his most recent letter, he asked Nichols how “do a vow of silence and care to avoid written records advance the administration’s coordination and facilitation of discussions regarding an important and multi-faceted rulemaking?

“Why did you choose to speak to the press on the process of negotiations and not the contents of the negotiations?” Issa wrote.

The committee wants answers no later than Jan. 9.

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