Capitol Alert

Trump puts California ‘on notice’ over emissions deal with carmakers

The Trump administration put California “on notice” Friday that it plans to use the full weight of federal authority to fight the state’s groundbreaking deal with automakers to rein in air pollution.

In a letter to California Air Resources Board Chairman Mary Nichols, attorneys for the EPA and Department of Transportation asserted that the state’s deal with Honda, Ford, BMW of North America and Volkswagen appears to be “unlawful and invalid.”

Separately, Reuters reported that the Justice Department has opened an antitrust investigation into the four car manufacturers over the deal.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom suggested the moves were more about deterring additional carmakers from joining the agreement, rather than a genuine legal threat.

“The Trump Administration has been attempting and failing to bully car companies for months now. We remain undeterred,” Newsom said in a statement provided to McClatchy. “California stands up to bullies and will keep fighting for stronger clean car protections that protect the health and safety of our children and families.”

An EPA official rejected the accusations that the administration is trying to instill a chilling effect on the automotive industry. The official told McClatchy that, after putting California “on notice” with its letter, the ball would be in the state’s court to determine next steps.

“It just depends on the reaction California has – the biggest thing we’re doing is finalizing the rule itself to have one national standard going forward,” the official said.

The federal government’s latest threats intensify what has already become one of the most acrimonious — and increasingly personal — battles between President Trump’s administration and the state.

Nichols singled out EPA Director Andrew Wheeler directly in a statement condemning the latest administration moves. “The US Department of Justice brings its weight to bear against auto companies in an attempt to frighten them out of voluntarily making cleaner, more efficient cars and trucks than EPA wants,” Nichols said. “Consumers might ask, who is Andy Wheeler protecting?”

Wheeler, in turn, labeled Nichols a liar in a scathing letter to Congress in July.

The New York Times reported in August that Trump, himself, was enraged by the deal the state struck with automakers, an attempt to circumvent new regulations the administration is writing that would roll back stricter auto emissions standards that then-President Obama issued in 2012.

Carbon emissions from cars are one of the leading sources of greenhouse gases, a key driver of climate change.

The Obama administration’s standards were agreed to in coordination with California, which was granted special authority to set its own tailpipe targets in the 1970 Clean Air Act. Thirteen other states and the District of Columbia have since followed California’s lead.

Talks between California and the Trump administration over adjusting the standards fell apart last February.

In addition to weakening the emissions standards, the Trump administration has since signaled it will challenge California’s waiver authority in the Clean Air Act.

Carmakers fear that will prompt a lengthy legal fight, which will lead to a patchwork of regulatory standards across the country. In June, a coalition of car manufacturers wrote a letter to the White House pleading with them to restart negotiations with California on a compromise. The automakers argued that uncertainty over the rules could create chaos as they begin designing models for the next decade.

California officials said that after the White House dismissed their plea, several carmakers then approached the state about working out a deal that could result in a higher fuel economy standard, regardless of the White House’s regulatory moves.

Nichols, Newsom and the four automakers announced an agreement in July to restrict carbon emissions for car models built through 2026. California’s leaders said at the time they were also engaging other car manufacturers to join the agreement. Discussions are still ongoing.

In August, the president fired off a pair of tweets warning other carmakers against such a move.

“Car companies should know that when this Administration’s alternative is no longer available, California will squeeze them to a point of business ruin,” Trump tweeted. “Only reason California is now talking to them is because the Feds are giving a far better alternative, which is much better for consumers!”

The Trump administration appears to have recently increased their efforts to thwart the California deal — and to halt any efforts to expand it.

President Donald Trump met with the CEO and chairman of General Motors, Mary Barra, on Thursday, amid rumors that the company could be next to join Newsom’s effort, and EPA officials were at the White House on Friday as the Justice Department announced its inquiry.

When California announced the deal in July, “Newsom said that others would be joining in a matter of days. Nichols said a matter of weeks,” the EPA official noted. “Days and weeks have gone by.”

Bryan Anderson and Sophia Bollag contributed to this report.

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.