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Stripping California of its right to set its own emissions regulations is 'witch hunt,' say industry experts

Posted at 8:15 AM, Sep 18, 2019
and last updated 2019-09-18 11:15:18-04

The White House is expected to announce Wednesday that it will move to block the State of California’s ability to set its own vehicle emissions standards.

The widely anticipated move comes as President Donald Trump's administration also prepares to roll back the strict Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards set by 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.

The anticipated announcement is expected to kick off a legal battle that could stretch on past the 2020 presidential election. 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.

California originally was granted authority to set tougher standards as an acknowledgement 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 likely announcement drew criticism from a number of quarters, including not only environmental organizations but some of the 13 other states and the District of Columbia that follow the stricter California standards.

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 himself 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.

A number of surveys, including one by the non-profit Consumers Union, has found strong public support for increased fuel economy goals. In recent days, administration sources have indicated that the final CAFE revisions will see less of a rollback than was outlined in 2018.

“While the White House clings to the past, automakers and American families embrace cleaner cars. The evidence is irrefutable: today's clean car standards are achievable, science-based, and a boon for hardworking American families and public health," California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement Tuesday.

While the industry has shown support for mileage increases, a number of carmakers are more supportive of eliminating the California waiver, arguing that there should just be one fuel economy and auto emissions target nationwide. The agreement the four automakers struck with California in July saw the state compromise, but only slightly. The deal would essentially see the Obama-era emissions and mileage rules pushed back by just one year.