By Paul A. Eisenstein
President Donald Trump on Wednesday barred California from setting its own vehicle emissions standards, kicking off a battle that is likely to last well beyond the 2020 presidential election.
“The Trump Administration is revoking California’s Federal Waiver on emissions in order to produce far less expensive cars for the consumer, while at the same time making the cars substantially SAFER,” Trump tweeted Wednesday morning, noting that the move will lead to “older, highly polluting cars” being replaced by “new, extremely environmentally friendly cars.”
The widely anticipated move comes as the White House also prepares to roll back the strict Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards set under President Barack Obama. Using its authority to set emissions targets, California had set even tougher standards that effectively required the auto industry to begin rolling out fleets of zero-emissions vehicles, including plug-in hybrids, pure battery-electric vehicles and hydrogen-powered cars.
California has already filed legal efforts to forestall such a move and has been joined by other states that have adopted the stricter California mandates.
There will be very little difference in emissions between the California Standard and the new U.S. Standard, but the cars will be far safer and much less expensive.” Trump wrote. “Many more cars will be produced under the new and uniform standard, meaning significantly more JOBS, JOBS, JOBS! Automakers should seize this opportunity because without this alternative to California, you will be out of business.”
California originally was granted authority to set tougher standards as an acknowledgment of the poor air quality in cities such as Los Angeles. Responding to reports that the White House was preparing to follow through on plans to eliminate that waiver, California Governor Gavin Newsom issued a statement warning the move “could have devastating consequences for our kids’ health and the air we breathe, if California were to roll over.”
The administration is engaged in a “witch hunt against California and carmakers,” said the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy group, picking up a phrase that Trump often applied to the Mueller investigation into possible collusion with the Russians.
Earlier this month, the Justice Department announced an antitrust investigation into the deal reached with California regulators by four automakers — Ford, VW, Honda and BMW — that would have them hold to stricter emissions and mileage standards than the Trump administration is expected to set under the revised CAFE mandate.
The president directly attacked the July deal with California, issuing a tweet that said, “Henry Ford would be very disappointed if he saw his modern-day descendants wanting to build a much more expensive car, that is far less safe and doesn’t work as well, because execs don’t want to fight California regulators.”
The Environmental Protection Agency, one of the two agencies charged with regulating federal mileage standards, initially derided the agreement between the automakers and the California Air Resources Board as a “PR stunt.”
On Tuesday, EPA spokesman Michael Abboud criticized it again, insisting it “does nothing to further the one national standard that will provide certainty and relief for American consumers.” Abboud also claimed that California regulators “continually refused” to work with the White House to reach a “common sense solution.”
The debate over the current federal fuel economy standards dates back to well before the 2016 elections. While the auto industry reached a compromise early on with the Obama administration setting a target of 54.5 miles per gallon for 2025, the deal called for a “mid-term review” that would explore whether the target remained feasible. With the rapid shift from passenger cars to less fuel-efficient pickups and utility vehicles, a number of automakers began pressing for a rollback, a request the outgoing administration rejected.
Initially, some of those manufacturers supported the Trump administration’s plan to stage its own analysis. But the preliminary revision jointly revealed by the EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last year went well beyond what was expected, and received little industry support.
In June, 17 automakers sent a letter to the White House urging the White House not to pull back as far as had been proposed on CAFE.