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Dingell urges Trump to spare EPA's auto testing lab from budget cuts

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The proposed cuts at the Ann Arbor testing lab are just one small part of the administration's proposal to cut EPA's budget by 31% to $5.6 billion

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell is trying to put pressure on President Donald Trump's administration to back off plans to de-fund the EPA's automotive testing lab in Ann Arbor.

Dingell, D-Dearborn, is concerned about the lab's future after the Trump budget included a proposal to slash EPA's vehicle emissions and fuel economy testing budget by $48 million.

The National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory has recently caught automakers selling vehicles with inaccurate fuel economy ratings and is viewed as a magnet for automotive research and development centers in Michigan.

"The Administration's proposed cuts to EPA's fuel economy and vehicle emissions budget is short-sighted and would create uncertainty, cost jobs and potentially destroy our country's competitive edge in this important field," Dingell said in a statement after touring the laboratory on Monday.

The lab, which employs about 435 engineers and technicians, is responsible for certifying that vehicles and engines meet greenhouse gas emissions and fuel economy standards. Employees also work on the development of new automotive technology designed to reduce emissions and increase fuel efficiency.

The lab also lures global automakers and suppliers to Michigan. For decades automakers and global suppliers have kept research and development centers in southeast Michigan to be near the lab.

For example, Toyota famously purchased Hilbert's Garage in Ann Arbor back in 1972 so it could have a place to prepare its cars before EPA testing. By 1977, Toyota opened a full-fledged research and development center and the automaker's presence near Ann Arbor has grown to more than 1,600 employees.

"We can't afford to lose these jobs, and we also can't afford to halt the government's work on creating more fuel-efficient vehicles and lowering overall emissions, which benefit consumers, the auto industry and the environment," Dingell said.

Dingell is concerned because documents obtained by the Washington Post suggest the Trump administration wants to shift funding of 168 employees from the agency's budget to a fee-based system paid for by the automakers.

The proposed cuts at the Ann Arbor testing lab are just one small part of the administration's proposal to cut EPA's budget by 31%, or $2.6 billion, to $5.6 billion.

A spokesmen for the EPA did not return an e-mail seeking comment on Monday.

Switching to a fee-based system would require legislation and could easily take two years, said Shannon Baker-Branstetter, policy counsel for Consumers Union. It also could easily wind up giving automakers more influence over the testing process.

"It sets up a pay to play situation," Baker-Branstetter said.

The Trump administration's plan to cut the lab's budget surfaced just over a month after the president overruled the EPA's decision to leave tough future emission regulations in place.

Trump came to Michigan in February to announce that the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would reinstate a mid-term evaluation of emission standards that were set to last from 2021 to 2025.

The EPA's lab was instrumental in an investigation into Volkswagen's systematic cheating on emissions. The agency also cited Hyundai-Kia with Clean Air Act violations that led to a $100 million settlement and a restatement of fuel economy figures for 1.2 million vehicles.

The EPA is currently investigating Fiat Chrysler Automobiles for possible Air Act violations for Ram pickups and Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs with diesel engines.

"If they had not been doing spot checking...consumers would have never known," Baker-Branstetter said. "It really is an important deterrent."

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

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