The Trump administration put California on notice Wednesday that it’s taking another look at miles per gallon requirements for cars and pickups that were negotiated during the Obama administration. Almost simultaneously, 10 attorneys general asked the administration to leave the rules alone.
The rules determine what choices are available to consumers when they visit the dealership, and how fast carbon emissions from vehicles are reduced to address climate change.
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“We are going to ensure any regulations we have protect and defend your jobs, your factories. We are going to be fair. We are going to be fair. This is an issue of deep importance to me,” President Donald Trump told an audience at an auto testing center southeast of Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Eighteen car companies had asked the new administration for this move, and acted to compel it legally on Monday. They argue it’s not economically feasible to produce and sell as many highly fuel efficient cars and trucks as they agreed to in 2009. The rules specifically affect model years 2022 through 2025.
But that agreement is among three parties, not merely the federal government and automakers. California is a party and any change to the agreement could propel the state back to its familiar role: embracing a stricter standard alone, taking with it states that have chosen California’s standard over the federal one. Those states comprise a third of the nation’s population. For the automakers that could mean tracking the average fuel efficiency of their fleets in each of 13 states, something they’ve said is too heavy a burden.
The California Air Resources Board regulates state vehicle emissions. Spokesman Stanley Young said the board is willing to participate in a reopened review, but “we believe it is completely unnecessary because there is exhaustive and voluminous analysis already done,” he said.
The state is focused on addressing climate change and committed to reducing carbon emissions from vehicle tailpipes.
“It’s a shot across the bow at California,” said David Pettit, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council and veteran of national clean car challenges.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a major trade group, issued a restrained statement that referenced getting back to work with California as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
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“We applaud the Administration’s decision to reinstate the data-driven review of the 2022-2025 standards,” the statement said, alluding to politics having influenced the earlier commitment.
Ten democratic attorneys general, led by Eric Schneiderman of New York, said in a letter they would oppose any rollback of fuel economy standards and filed for legal status to oppose any changes.
“We will vigorously oppose attempts by the Trump Administration to weaken our vehicle emission policies and put our public health at risk,” the letter said.
Some observers believe automakers may wish to avoid a war with California. Jeff Holmstead, who heads the Environmental Strategies Group at the law and lobbying firm Bracewell LLP, said several view changing the agreement as preferable to blowing it up.
“My impression is there are some of the auto guys who would certainly like some more flexibility but are not looking for a significant change in the [fuel efficiency] standards, and the question is, will that be acceptable to California or will California try to go its own way? And I think that is still an open question.”
Young said California would be willing to discuss “how we go about meeting the standards, in a different way perhaps.”
Environmental Protection Agency Chief Scott Pruitt, who was present at the Michigan event, according to the agency, did not speak. Trump made the announcement as part of a speech focused on American manufacturing employment.
The business group E2, made up of environmental entrepreneurs, rejected the idea that addressing climate change means laying off workers.
Rolling back fuel efficiency, said Executive Director Bob Keefe, “will once again put America in the rearview mirror of foreign automakers that will be glad to dominate the market for the next generation of more efficient vehicles.”
If the National Highway Safety Transportation Administration and Environmental Protection Agency do loosen the fuel efficiency rules beyond what California is willing to agree to, the state can then use its power under federal law to follow its own standards.
That power has only been directly challenged once before. The Bush administration held up the state’s ability to set greenhouse gas emissions from cars for months before the current agreement was negotiated during the recession, with the automakers in a state of duress, under the auspices of the Obama administration.