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Morning news brief

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The auto industry is moving towards electric vehicles. The big question is how fast should it go?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Well, the Environmental Protection Agency has chimed in with its answer, which is very fast. The agency just proposed the toughest ever rules around tailpipe emissions. It's actually a big push to get the auto industry to focus on electric vehicles. Yesterday, EPA Administrator Michael Regan laid out why.

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MICHAEL REGAN: The stakes could not be higher. We must continue to act with haste and ambition to confront the climate crisis and to leave all our children, like my 9-year-old son Matthew, a healthier and safer world.

MARTIN: As for how the EPA plans to do that, NPR's Camila Domonoske is here to tell us. Thank goodness. Good morning.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So what exactly is the EPA announcing today?

DOMONOSKE: All right, so these are proposed tailpipe emissions standards. And these tailpipe emissions include both pollution like smog - right? - stuff that makes people sick, and greenhouse gases. Transportation is the single biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S., which is fueling catastrophic climate change. So these are regulations that cover both of these things, and they are about to get, under this proposal, significantly stricter.

MARTIN: So if I have this right, though, Camila, hasn't the EPA been trying to make cars cleaner for some time now? I'm thinking decades. So what's different about this?

DOMONOSKE: So the standards are going to take a huge leap in terms of how strict they are. And the way these standards work - it's not like every single vehicle has to meet the standard. It's that on average, the whole fleet of cars that a company makes has to meet them. And the new standards are going to be so strict that hypothetically a company could meet them however they want. They're technology-neutral standards. That's what they're called. But realistically, they're going to have to make electric vehicles to bring that average down low enough to comply. Now, I'm going to throw some numbers at you about how many electric vehicles we're talking. A few years ago, electric vehicles were about 2% of new car sales in the U.S. Right now, 7%. The EPA is looking at 2032 - that's nine years from now - and they're envisioning a U.S. where two-thirds of new vehicles are electric.

MARTIN: OK, wow. So is that even feasible?

DOMONOSKE: At a minimum, it's really, really hard. It's not just about making the vehicles, which is its own challenge. It's having chargers for all of them, electricity to power those chargers. It's having batteries to put in them. It's having minerals for those batteries. The challenge here is huge. What the EPA would say is that the government is also providing a lot of support for the transition. There is funding for battery plants and minerals and chargers, right? California and the EU have electric car mandates - slightly different structure, but they have policies that are going to require electric vehicles as well. Lots of companies were going in this direction anyway, just not maybe as quickly. So the EPA says if you factor all that in, it is feasible. The auto industry says maybe.

MARTIN: OK, as briefly as you can, what's next?

DOMONOSKE: Well, there's going to be a comment period. These are proposed standards, so expect to hear about feasibility. There will also almost certainly be a political fight, possibly a legal one. The current version of these standards, which is nowhere near as strict, is being challenged in court by red states led by Texas. One thing that I'll note is interesting about that - the auto industry has actually chimed in to defend the EPA's right to set these standards, and they called the shift toward electrification - not necessarily the speed, but the overall direction - inevitable.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Camila Domonoske. Camila, thank you.

DOMONOSKE: Thank you.

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MARTIN: The White House is calling for swift action on an illegal street drug that, hard to believe, is growing even more deadly.

FADEL: Already, 100,000 people are dying each year from drug overdoses. And now the administration is raising the alarm on a synthetic drug cocktail of fentanyl and an animal tranquilizer called xylazine that's poisoning even more Americans.

MARTIN: NPR's Brian Mann covers addiction for us, and he's with us now to tell us more. Brian, good morning.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So we've been hearing about xylazine over the last year. What's new here?

MANN: Well, what's happening is this mixture of fentanyl and xylazine, which is known on the street as tranq, is just spreading really fast. It used to be mostly a problem in the Northeast. Now it's really everywhere, with federal officials reporting a 1,000% increase in xylazine-related overdose deaths in Southern states in a single year. So speaking with reporters, the White House drug czar, Dr. Rahul Gupta, said it's time to act.

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RAHUL GUPTA: This is the first time in our nation's history that a substance is being designated as an emerging threat by any administration.

MANN: So Gupta says they'll notify Congress about this threat today and will then roll out a plan to fight this drug cocktail. That plan will come out over the next 90 days.

MARTIN: So, Brian, I do want to hear about this plan. But first, can you just tell us why these drugs are so popular if they're this deadly? How are they spreading so fast?

MANN: Yeah, well, like other synthetic drugs, xylazine's super cheap for drug cartels to make. And then when it's mixed with fentanyl, it can deepen and prolong the sense of euphoria experienced by drug users. So that combination has kind of supercharged the spread of tranq. But the human toll is devastating. Addiction to this drug is really powerful. It's hard to escape, and frequent xylazine users suffer terrible wounds when they inject the drug. Again, here's Dr. Gupta.

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GUPTA: People are often ending up having to either have amputations of their limbs or having deep ulcers, infections, sepsis, and oftentimes are admitted to intensive care units.

MANN: And the presence of xylazine also complicates treatment of people experiencing opioid overdoses involving heroin or fentanyl. Sometimes typical methods for saving people's lives just aren't working.

MARTIN: It sounds really dire. So what does the Biden administration plan to do?

MANN: Well, the first goal is to ramp up testing, to just identify where xylazine is prevalent in the drug supply across the country. This is sort of like COVID testing during the pandemic. Public health officials need to find out where people are most likely to get sick. Biden administration also wants more funding for research for medical treatments for people affected by these synthetic drugs. And it is also likely the government's going to further regulate xylazine, which is going to be complicated, Michel, because this is a drug used legally, regularly, by veterinarians as an animal tranquilizer.

MARTIN: And fentanyl is already a political flashpoint, so let's talk about the criminal justice side of this. Is there talk of cracking down, for example, on dealers selling these synthetic drugs?

MANN: Well, Gupta says it may make sense for Congress to increase criminal penalties. And this part of the federal response worries some people, like Maritza Perez Medina with the Drug Policy Alliance. Here she is.

MARITZA PEREZ MEDINA: We're really targeting people who could benefit from health services. So that's my overall concern with, like, the direction that the federal government is taking, specifically Congress, with criminalizing these emerging substances.

MANN: And one last thought, Michel - people say there are more and more of these deadly synthetic drugs like xylazine, like fentanyl, likely to turn up on American streets in the months and years ahead.

MARTIN: That is NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann. Brian, thank you.

MANN: Thank you.

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MARTIN: New inflation numbers out this morning are expected to show that the pace of price hikes slowed a bit last month.

FADEL: Yeah, but people's wallets are still being stretched, and the rising cost of services - travel, restaurant meals - could keep inflation uncomfortably high for some time to come.

MARTIN: NPR's Scott Horsley is with us now with a preview of today's inflation report. Good morning, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So I understand from you that prices are still going up, but not as fast as they were last summer. What else can we learn from today's report?

HORSLEY: It is expected to show some improvement. Annual inflation peaked at just over 9% last June. It was 6% in February, and forecasters think it will be closer to 5% in March. So it is moving in the right direction. But that means prices are still climbing about 2 1/2 times as fast as the Federal Reserve would like. Yesterday, the International Monetary Fund cited stubbornly high inflation and rising interest rates around the world as some of the factors that are weighing on global economic growth. But Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who is attending the IMF meetings this week, tried to put a more positive spin on the story.

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JANET YELLEN: Commodity prices have eased. Supply chain snarls are being resolved. The global financial system has generally proven quite resilient.

HORSLEY: In fact, the IMF actually raised its forecast for the U.S. economy this year, although it's still predicting pretty lackluster GDP growth of about 1.6%.

MARTIN: Scott, it feels like I've been asking you this month after month, so sorry for that, but what is keeping inflation so high?

HORSLEY: It's been a moving target. You know, inflation first spiked back in 2021. It was mostly driven by runaway demand for stuff and supply chains that just couldn't keep up. Then last year, of course, Russia invaded Ukraine, and we saw the price of energy and food skyrocket. As Yellen noted, a lot of those goods prices have since come back to Earth, and we're not buying as much stuff anymore. But Austan Goolsbee, who is one of the newest members of the Fed's rate-setting committee, says people are still spending money on services, and that's creating a new inflation headache.

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AUSTAN GOOLSBEE: The economy's still coming back from bizarro COVID times. Travel, hotels, restaurants, leisure, recreation, entertainment - demand has returned, and the inflation has proved particularly persistent.

HORSLEY: And Goolsbee warned services prices may not be as responsive to the Fed's main inflation fighting tool, which is higher interest rates.

MARTIN: So just one more thing - are Fed watchers still expecting the central bank to raise interest rates again?

HORSLEY: Maybe. Right now, betting markets think the Fed will raise interest rates by another quarter percentage point at its next meeting in three weeks, but that could be the last rate hike for a while. Since the collapse of Silicon Valley and Signature banks last month, other lenders have gotten stingier about making loans, and that amplifies the Fed's rate hikes and acts like another brake on the economy. So Goolsbee says he and his colleagues have to be careful about how high rates should go.

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GOOLSBEE: The Fed's job is to be more paranoid than anyone else. That's what they pay us for. In unluckier times, more interesting times like the times we're in right now with wild shocks and financial stresses, it means we have to dig into loads of new information.

HORSLEY: And today's inflation report is one key piece of information for the Fed.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Scott Horsley. Scott, thank you.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.