Trump officials dismiss California deal with automakers, vow to move forward on rule

Trump administration officials vowed on Thursday to proceed with a sweeping rule that will lower national standards on vehicle tailpipe emissions, dismissing a deal brokered by California with four of the world’s largest automakers meant to reduce air pollution.

The deal between California and Ford, Honda, BMW of North America and Volkswagen Group of America fuels a growing feud between the Trump administration and the automotive industry.

It also escalates a yearlong struggle between California and President Donald Trump over how much to raise standards on vehicular greenhouse gas emissions, a critical battlefront in the fight over climate change.

“The Trump administration believes strongly in a national fuel standard that promotes safer, cleaner, and more affordable vehicles,” White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere told McClatchy. “The federal government, not a single state, should set this standard. We are moving forward to finalize a rule for the benefit of all Americans.”

Trump’s dispute with the industry over tailpipe standards first boiled over in June, when 17 automakers wrote him a letter requesting he compromise with California over his administration’s plans to raise the fuel economy standards issued by his predecessor, Barack Obama.

The new rule, being written by the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency, would revoke California’s long-standing ability to set its own emissions standards, ensuring a protracted legal battle that is already creating instability in the auto markets as manufacturers prepare to roll out their 2020 model year.

Under the Clean Air Act of 1970, California received a waiver allowing the state to set fuel economy standards that are stricter than those issued by the federal government. Thirteen other states and the District of Columbia followed California’s lead. In California alone, vehicle pollution represent 40 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted, the state says.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom told reporters that decreasing those emissions is “the most significant thing this state and this nation can do” to reduce human-made greenhouse gases, the “most significant driver of observed climate change,” according to the EPA.

Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, said she was hopeful the development would compel the Trump administration to reconsider its approach and “change positions.” But officials from the White House, the EPA and the Transportation Department were united in their pushback.

“The Trump administration is pursuing one national standard and certainty for the entire auto market,” said EPA spokesman Michael Abboud. “This voluntary framework is a PR stunt that does nothing to further the one national standard that will provide certainty and relief for American consumers. As the administration stated earlier this year, despite our best efforts to reach a common-sense solution with [California Air Resources Board], they continually refused to produce reasonable and responsible proposals.”

Speaking with McClatchy, Trump officials were dismissive of concerns from automakers that their approach would raise prices and create two competing national standards for emissions, highlighting Ford’s failure to meet existing standards and questioning their ability to meet an even higher bar set in the Sacramento agreement.

“The proposal is more or less a floor – if some of the automakers want to go above and beyond, they can,” one administration official said.

The White House brought auto companies in one by one throughout March and April to discuss their positions and concerns, according to one industry source, who noted that car companies remain largely in the dark over which standards will be included in the final rule.

Administration officials initially said they would publish Trump’s final rule on national emissions standards this summer, rolling back an Obama-era agreement that had earned hard-won support from skeptical manufacturers.

“We are assuming if it’s anything like the proposal we have seen in the past … we would be in court very shortly after they publish those rules, no matter what,” Nichols said.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler recently said publication of the final rule might be delayed beyond September. Sources inside and outside the administration said the rule could be submitted by Labor Day.

“The date keeps moving backwards,” observed Nichols. She alleged that “Some of their calculations, their math was wrong,” in the administration’s initial regulatory proposal. “So I’m sure they’re trying to clean that up before issuing the final rule.”

An administration official blamed the delay on the “complicated rulemaking process,” but said California’s announcement would have “no impact on our timing.”

The delay in the administration’s new rule and California’s new deal with the automakers created hope among some opponents of the Trump proposal that the administration might revisit negotiations with California, which it broke off in February. The blame for those failed talks was the subject of a very public round of fingerpointing when Nichols and the Trump administration testified before Congress last month.

“It’s clear these four automakers want a single national standard and will continue to work with California to build fuel efficient vehicles,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said in a statement. “I encourage the administration to follow their lead and return to the negotiating table.”

The delay in issuing the rule also complicates the White House’s legal defense strategy, since it’s likely to push any Supreme Court decision on the issue past President Trump’s first term. If a Democrat is elected in 2020, it is all but certain he or she would revoke the current administration’s rollback.

Newsom and Nichols acknowledged the standards in the agreement – which applies to car models through 2026 – aren’t as stringent as the targets established by former President Barack Obama’s administration in 2012.

But Nichols said that with the deal, the state and others following its lead are “maintaining the momentum and making sure the gasoline cars built in that period continue to improve, their emissions profile continue to put on available tech and we don’t have a backslide.”

The carmakers in the agreement with California represent approximately 30% of the total U.S. car market, Nichols said. She and Newsom, a Democrat elected in 2018, said they anticipate additional auto manufacturers joining the agreement, which would go into effect if and when the administration issues its final rule.

“We hope and expect in the coming days that we will see other companies joining,” Nichols said.

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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.
Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and writes the Impact2020 newsletter. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.