Bypassing Trump on Fuel Standards, California Reaches Its Own Auto Deal

Car exhaust wafts around commuter traffic in 3 degree weather in Omaha, Neb., Friday, Feb. 1, 2013.

Car exhaust wafts around commuter traffic in 3 degree weather in Omaha, Neb., Friday, Feb. 1, 2013. Nati Harnik/AP Photo

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California and four major automakers announced a deal Thursday on fuel efficiency standards. But the plan was met with resistance by the Trump administration, which has vowed to enforce its proposed lower fuel standard.

California and four major automakers announced an agreement Thursday on vehicle fuel efficiency and carbon emissions that rejects the Trump administration’s plan to relax national standards.

But the compromise was met with resistance from administration officials, who said they are determined to push forward with their plans to roll back Obama-era fuel mileage standards and force California to compromise.

The voluntary deal—agreed to by BMW, Ford, Honda, and Volkswagen—would ease the rate at which automakers must improve vehicles’ gas mileage compared to the Obama-era plan, which required a fleetwide fuel efficiency average of 47.6 miles per gallon by 2025. Instead, the deal would raise standards at a slower pace, to around 50 miles per gallon by 2026. 

“This agreement represents a feasible and acceptable path to accomplishing the goals of California and the automobile industry,” said California Air Resources Board Chair Mary D. Nichols. “If the White House does not agree, we will move forward with our current standards but work with individual carmakers to implement these principles.”

The White House said it intends to move ahead to finalize the proposed rollback.

“The federal government, not a single state, should set this standard,” said White House spokesman Judd Deere. “We are moving forward to finalize a rule for the benefit of all Americans.”

The Trump administration has sought to roll back Obama-era goals and instead keep fuel efficiency standards at 37 miles per gallon through 2025. Officials argued that higher standards will make cars too expensive.

“The Trump administration is pursuing one national standard and certainty for the entire auto market that will provide safe, affordable vehicles for consumers while also improving environmental outcomes,” said EPA spokesman Michael Abboud. 

The proposed Trump administration rule would also revoke California’s longstanding authority to set its own standards, which at least 13 other states have adopted.

California officials had sought to compromise with the Environmental Protection Agency to preserve some elements of their mandates, but negotiations fell apart earlier this year, resulting in the state’s effort to strike out on its own. California and a coalition of other states filed a lawsuit last year over the proposed emission standard change.

Environmental groups heralded the move, saying that it showed that states have an essential role in setting pollution standards. 

“The agreement clearly demonstrates that the Trump administration’s rollback, which has no technical or legal rationale, is doomed. The administration should drop its senseless and harmful plan that would make cars pollute more and cost drivers more at the pump,” said Luke Tonachel, director of clean vehicles and fuels at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In a statement, the Sierra Club noted that it has been lobbying Ford for two years to commit to the Obama standards, calling on other automakers to join the agreement. 

The announcement on Thursday appeared unlikely to assuage the EPA’s concerns, and a spokesman said it would have “no impact” on the agency’s regulation of greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.

“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,” Abboud said. 

Automakers have expressed concern that a failure of California and the administration to broker a compromise would create uncertainty and vulnerability in the industry. The four companies said the agreement was a step toward stability. 

“A 50-state solution has always been our preferred path forward and we understand that any deal involves compromise,” the companies said in a joint statement. “These terms will provide our companies much-needed regulatory certainty by allowing us to meet both federal and state requirements with a single national fleet.”

Last month, 17 auto companies sent a letter to President Trump asking his administration to return to the negotiating table, saying his administration’s plan was creating instability. 

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers on Thursday said the agreement acknowledges that the Obama-era standards were not attainable and needed to be adjusted. But the alliance said it did little to alleviate concerns that a protracted legal battle over the standards could ensue. 

With a final federal rule outstanding, the alliance said, “automakers continue to seek an optimal pathway forward that meets the diverse needs of our customers while providing environmental improvements, preserving safety and auto jobs and keeping new vehicles affordable for more Americans.”

Editor's note: This story was updated after initial publication.

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty.

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