In major coup against Trump, Gov. Gavin Newsom strikes climate change deal with carmakers

Engineering a significant victory against the Trump administration on climate change, California officials announced a breakthrough agreement with four major automakers Thursday on restricting greenhouse gas emissions.

The deal announced by Gov. Gavin Newsom with Ford, Honda, BMW and Volkswagen significantly strengthens the state’s hand in a long-standing fight with President Donald Trump’s administration over how stringently carbon emissions from cars should be regulated.

Newsom and Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, said they believe other carmakers will sign onto the California deal. That could put the Trump administration, which has wanted to loosen the tailpipe regulations, in a serious bind.

“The world gets it and these automobile makers get it as well,” Newsom said on a conference call with reporters. He said the Trump White House is “in complete denialism on climate change.” The four automakers represent about 30 percent of the U.S. car market.

If President Donald Trump and his administration try to fight the California agreement, “we’ll reserve our right to litigate,” Newsom said.

The Trump administration showed no signs of giving in. White House Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere said the administration is “moving forward to finalize a rule for the benefit of all Americans.” Michael Abboud, a spokesman for the U.S. Environmental Agency, called the California deal “a PR stunt.”

The Obama administration, in consultation with California officials, had imposed rules requiring automakers to reduce tailpipe greenhouse gas emissions by about 30 percent by 2025.

The Trump administration is working on rules to significantly roll back those regulations, arguing that the Obama timetable would have forced automakers to raise prices on new cars by an average of $1,850 per vehicle.

But state officials said those higher costs will be more than offset by savings on fuel purchases. That’s because, as a practical matter, the most efficient way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions is by building lighter vehicles that get better gas mileage.

The California plan will raise fuel mileage substantially, from about 35 mpg to around 50 mpg. The Trump plan would raise it to 37 mpg and then hold it in place at least through 2025.

The California agreement with the four automakers represents a compromise: Greenhouse gases will still be reduced, and fuel mileage will climb, but automakers will have until 2026, not 2025, to make all the changes.

“We’ll continue to see progress but it won’t be as fast,” Nichols said.

Automakers had initially cheered on Trump’s plans to loosen the carbon standards. But they were growing increasingly wary of the federal government’s fight with California. The state, because of its severe air pollution problems, has special legal rights under the federal Clean Air Act to impose stricter regulations then the U.S. government, but the Trump administration has been challenging that.

Cara Horowitz, a UCLA law professor who specializes in environmental law, said the federal government has never tried to revoke California’s special authority to issue its own air standards — and she doubts it could succeed in court. “California has the better end of that case,” she said.

Besides, even if the Trump administration wins, she said automakers would still be free to build cars that meet California’s stricter standards.

State and federal officials spent much of 2018 discussing a compromise. But the White House broke off negotiations with California officials in February, saying the Air Resources Board hadn’t offered a “productive alternative” to the Trump plan.

As the standoff continued between California and Trump, automakers fired off a letter to the White House last month calling for agreement on “a final rule supported by all parties — including California.” The automakers argued that uncertainty over the rules could create chaos as they begin designing models for the next decade.

The White House dismissed the plea, but Nichols said several carmakers then approached California officials about forging a deal with the state that would cover cars they sell all over the country, not just in California.

“The companies are already locking in place their product plans,” Nichols said. “They were ready to sit down with California.”

Governors of two dozen states have publicly sided with California, Newsom said.

Trump’s moves were also threatening to undermine California’s push for more electric cars and other green vehicles. California is demanding that carmakers more than double their sales of electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids and other clean cars in the state by 2025.

“A 50-state solution has always been our preferred path forward and we understand that any deal involves compromise,” the four carmakers said in a joint statement. “These terms will provide our companies much-needed regulatory certainty by allowing us to meet both federal and state requirements with a single national fleet, avoiding a patchwork of regulations while continuing to ensure meaningful greenhouse gas emissions reductions.”

California has long advocated for reduced emissions as a means of fighting climate change. The deal announced Thursday will cut those automakers’ emissions by 3.7 percent a year between 2022 and 2026.

Volkswagen’s participation in the agreement is particularly noteworthy because of the company’s checkered past on air pollution. Volkswagen was fined billions by California and federal officials after being caught cheating on emissions testing on hundreds of thousands of diesel cars. Since then it has tried to become a leader on air pollution and is planning a factory in Tennessee to assemble electric cars.

“We believe as a company in protecting the environment, bringing innovative technology to the market and protecting American jobs,” the company said in a statement on the California agreement. “We support a 50-state framework for meeting future (greenhouse gas) standards until California and the federal government can agree on one national GHG program.”

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Dale Kasler covers climate change, the environment, economics and the convoluted world of California water. He also covers major enterprise stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. He joined The Bee in 1996 from the Des Moines Register and graduated from Northwestern University.