White House

Trump wins one against California on climate rules. Carmakers side with White House

President Donald Trump has scored a key victory over California and Gov. Gavin Newsom in their increasingly nasty fight over climate change and rules limiting greenhouse gas emissions from cars.

Leading automakers such as General Motors and Toyota sided with the Trump administration this week in a major lawsuit regarding the standards for fuel economy and carbon emissions.

The Association of Global Automakers and the Coalition for Sustainable Automotive Regulation — a group including GM, Toyota, Mazda, Fiat Chrysler and Mitsubishi — split with four other automakers that had agreed to follow tougher rules enacted by California.

The coalition said it simply wants to avoid a two-track system in which carmakers have to follow one set of rules for California, and the states that are supporting California, and another set of rules imposed by the federal government. Such a scenario would create chaos in the industry, the group argued.

“The certainty of one national program, with reasonable, achievable standards, is the surest way to reduce emissions in the timeliest manner,” John Bozzella, the head of the coalition, said in a statement. “With our industry facing the possibility of multiple, overlapping and inconsistent standards that drive up costs and penalize consumers, we had an obligation to intervene.”

In siding with Trump, some automakers are hoping to build leverage in any future negotiated settlement between California and the Trump administration, according to a source in the auto industry familiar with the deliberations.

“It’s not unusual in any type of situation like this for entities to intervene for them to have a seat at the table, to be a part of any sort of settlement,” the source told McClatchy, “to sue and chew gum at the same time.”

Talks over a deal broke down in February, spilling a bitter dispute between Nichols and EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler out into the open. Both sides have said the time for negotiations is over. But some auto industry leaders still hold out hope that talks over a common standard can be resuscitated.

Trump has not been extensively involved in the latest round of meetings and discussions over the California dispute, but did discuss the importance of a national standard with GM’s CEO in September. And he has expressed interest in a settlement in the past.

“A deal is better than not having a deal,” Trump told auto executives at a meeting at the White House in May 2018, before the talks broke down, according to one attendee.

Officials at the EPA felt a sense of vindication in Monday’s announcement after Newsom initially predicted that more automakers would join his July agreement within a matter of weeks.

“EPA will continue to pursue one national standard through our proposed SAFE rule,” Michael Abboud, EPA spokesman, told McClatchy in response to the development. “We appreciate the support in this effort.” SAFE is shorthand for the Trump administration’s Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient rules.

An administration official said the EPA plans to publish its final rule by the end of the year.

California goes its own way

A decade ago, California and the Obama administration agreed on long-range restrictions on carbon emissions from the automotive sector — one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gases. The Trump administration has been rolling back those standards — and is also revoking California’s unique legal authority to set tougher rules than the federal government.

Newsom’s administration engineered a coup of sorts in July. Ford, Honda, BMW and Volkswagen agreed to a compromise plan with the California Air Resources Board. The deal will cut carbon emissions from tailpipes by about 30 percent by 2026. The original Obama plan would have made those reductions a year earlier, in 2025.

At the time, Newsom and air board Chairwoman Mary Nichols predicted other carmakers would fall into line with the California plan. So far, none have, and now some of the biggest carmakers in the world have moved into Trump’s camp.

On Tuesday, Nichols said in a prepared statement: “We are disappointed in the Association of Global Automakers for hiding behind the Trump administration’s skirts and its assault on public health. California will continue to carry out our mandate to meet national air quality standards and keep working with those automakers committed to a framework that delivers cleaner vehicles that benefit consumers and the environment.”

Because the most efficient way of cutting carbon emissions is by building lighter vehicles, the California agreement will average fuel mileage from about 35 mpg to 50 mpg.

The Trump administration, however, said the California rules will force carmakers to raise sticker prices dramatically. Under the carbon plan rolled out by his administration, fuel mileage would increase slightly, to an average 37 mpg, and hold it there at least through 2025.

Trump’s administration argues that its plan will save consumers money. But California says its plan will actually help motorists more in the long run because they’ll purchase a lot less fuel for their cars.

Related stories from McClatchy DC

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.
Michael Wilner joined McClatchy as its White House correspondent in 2019. He previously served as Washington bureau chief for The Jerusalem Post, where he led coverage of the Iran nuclear talks, the Syrian refugee crisis and the 2016 US presidential campaign. Wilner holds degrees from Claremont McKenna College and Columbia University and is a native of New York City.
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