The Trump administration is proposing to roll back Obama-era mileage standards that were created to make cars more fuel efficient and reduce pollution.
Opponents say the result will be dirtier air and more pollution-related illness and death.
It will escalate the administration's legal battle with California and about a dozen other states that have adopted California's emission rules, and account for about a third of the USA auto market. California and 16 other states already have filed suit to block any change in the fuel efficiency rules.
Environmental groups have criticized that analysis and said the proposal would drive up gasoline prices and reverse one of the most significant steps Washington has taken to curb climate changing greenhouse gas emissions.
The new proposal from the U.S. Transportation Department and Environmental Protection Agency would roll back a 2012 rule that required auto manufacturers to almost double the fuel economy of passenger vehicles to an average 54 miles (5.2 liters / 100 km) per gallon by 2025.
The administration said the freeze would boost USA oil consumption by about 500,000 barrels of oil a day by the 2030s, and argued it would prevent up to 1,000 traffic fatalities per year by reducing the price of new vehicles and so prompting people to buy newer, safer vehicles more quickly.
The agency's argument is that lower vehicle prices allow consumers to buy newer vehicles with better technology that will save lives on the road. The government says it will seek public comment for a broader picture of the impact of any mileage freeze.
Some Republican lawmakers supported the mileage freeze, but environmental groups and many states assailed it.
Attorneys general from 19 states and the District of Columbia say they'll go to court to stop a proposed rollback in mileage standards. The affordability argument ignores thousands of dollars of saving in fuel costs for each driver over the life of a auto, opponents of the rollbacks said.
The Trump administration on Thursday recommended freezing mile-per-gallon standards for cars and light trucks after the 2020 model year, saying it will keep prices lower for consumers and improve safety. California "will use every legal tool at its disposal to defend today's national standards and reaffirm the facts and science behind them", he said.
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The proposal to roll back anti-pollution efforts, to be released early on Thursday according to one administration official, is in line with President Donald Trump's decision past year to abandon the 2015 Paris deal aimed at slowing climate change.
The administration's report projects that relaxing auto standards would mean 60,000 fewer auto jobs by 2030. Those losses would hit the estimated 200,000 U.S.jobs that deal with making vehicles more fuel efficient, said Simon Mui of the Natural Resources Defence Council.
Advocates for action on climate change said the Obama administration's last-second move to make the fuel economy standards permanent was necessary.
More than a dozen states follow California's standards, amounting to about 40 percent of the country's new-vehicle market. That argument remained on the EPA's website Thursday.
You now have a chance to speak up about a new plan from President Trump that deals with fuel efficient cars. That would price many buyers out of the new-vehicle market, forcing them to drive older, less-safe vehicles that pollute more, the administration says.
Weissman said the "the Trump administration's rollback of clean auto standards is a disastrous wreck for consumers and the planet" and said it will force Americans "to pay more at the pump and breathe dirtier air".
Transportation experts question the reasoning behind the proposal. The state has struggled to rein in vehicle pollution; transportation accounts for the biggest chunk of the state's greenhouse gas emissions and is the only sector where emissions went up in 2016, the most recent data available.
A drawn-out legal battle over the standards could hurt the auto industry as it tries to plan for coming model years. "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".
In 2012, when the standards were first adopted, cars were about 50 per cent of new-vehicle sales.