Dan Walters

California vs. Washington: Smog a new battleground

There seems to be no end to the issues in which blue California finds itself at odds with a Republican-controlled federal government – and smog is a new one.

President Donald Trump, saying he wants a “common sense” approach, signaled this week that he will roll back auto fuel economy standards the Obama administration had finalized just before handing off to Trump.

The rules had enshrined a landmark deal in which the auto industry agreed, albeit reluctantly, that cars sold to the entire nation would have the same fleet mileage standards – 54.5 miles per gallon – as California wants for 2022-25 model years. That’s a 50 percent increase from the current mileage standard.

Although automakers had agreed to a 50-state standard, Trump’s unexpected victory last year gave them an opening to plead that the 2022-25 rules are unrealistic. During an era of historically low fuel costs, motorists are opting for SUVs and other relatively low-mileage vehicles, which also are the most profitable to produce and sell.

For more than four decades, California has been authorized to adopt, via specific “waivers,” emission standards higher than those imposed on other states under the Clean Air Act, in recognition of its chronic smog problems.

The state has received more than 100 waivers for its rules, which also have become integral elements of its efforts to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases” considered to be causes of climate change, as well as smog-causing pollutants.

There had been some hints that the Trump administration would attempt to rescind California’s waivers, but that doesn’t appear to be an immediate threat. However, if Trump adopts a lower mileage standard than California for 2022-25, the state may have to seek another waiver and that could touch off a battle.

Conversely, if the state winds up going it alone on 2022-25 mileage rules, it would create a dilemma for automakers – and indirectly for California consumers.

The manufacturers could voluntarily adopt the California rules in their nationwide product mix. They could specifically tailor cars for sale to Californians, who buy about 2 million new cars a year, and the other states that follow California rules – together roughly 40 percent of the new-car market. Or they could limit sales of higher-emitting vehicles in California so that their fleet averages met state rules.

So what will happen?

There will be cross-country exchanges of rhetoric, such as Gov. Jerry Brown’s depiction of “an unconscionable gift to polluters,” California will try to intervene in a suit filed by automakers against the Obama-era rules and everyone will wait to see what Trump does.

The showdown will come if, and when, California seeks a waiver for higher mileage standards, and given the years-long lead times in manufacturing, it could come quickly. Current law calls for the national rules to be adopted this year and simply waiting out what Californians may hope is a one-term presidency may not be an option.

Everyone is getting ready to rumble.

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