The Trump White House is advancing a plan to freeze fuel-economy standards for new cars and trucks, and to escalate its fight against California’s power to set regulatory standards for the entire U.S. auto market, according to reports from a variety of sources this week, including The Wall Street Journal and The Hill.
According to sources familiar with the administration’s plans, the new rules, which could be released as early as this week, would halt plans to raise fuel economy requirements in new cars, trucks and buses. The increases were initially set up by a collaboration between California and former President Barack Obama’s regulators as a way to address climate change.
For now, the Trump administration’s plan seems to be focused on passenger cars and would eliminate gradual increases in fuel-efficiency standards for vehicle model years 2022-2025. Under guidelines set up by the Obama Administration, those standards aimed to increase fuel economy averages to around 36 mpg for new cars in real-world driving conditions by 2025. Those figures were reached according to complex government calculations averaged out over the total number of new vehicles sold in that time frame.
The administration reportedly is taking aim at longstanding exemptions that allow California to impose emissions standards more stringent than those applied by the federal government. California has already sued to stop previous administration efforts to roll back vehicle emissions standards. The auto industry has lobbied both sides to strike a deal that would avoid a rift leaving the country with two sets of rules. But instead of pursuing a deal, the plan spearheaded by the Transportation Department and the Environmental Protection Agency will attempt to eliminate or override California’s emissions authority and force the state to adopt less-stringent federal pollution standards.
The issue is complicated by the fact that California is not alone in its pursuit of more stringent emissions standards. Other states, primarily on the West Coast, follow California’s lead on emissions regulations, and its regulatory influence has grown as concerns about climate change have taken root among American voters.
Resistance from California voters is expected to be fierce. A poll conducted a year ago by the Public Policy Institute of California, for example, found that clear majorities of Californians support enacting tougher emissions standards, allowing California to enact its own emissions standards, and requiring that 100% of the state’s energy be generated by renewable sources such as wind or solar power by 2045.
Many Trump officials have repeatedly criticized the state’s autonomy, claiming California has overstepped its legal authority in order to push an environmental agenda that, they say, forces the auto industry to make fuel-efficient cars consumers don’t want.
The state's ability to set its own rules has also let to regulations that many in the trucking industry have found onerous. Earlier this year, the California Air Resources Board fined Marten Logistics $100,000 and Roadrunner Transportation Systems over $50,000 for failing to verify that trucks hired or dispatched were compliant with the state’s truck emissions regulations.
Failing to Make an Emissions Deal
President Trump, in his May meeting with auto executives, directed his cabinet officials to pursue an emissions deal with California. But a series of meetings held since then failed to produce substantive results, with administration regulators refusing to share technical data with California officials in advance as Obama’s team had done. Since then, EPA chief Scott Pruitt resigned amid scandals within a week of meeting with California Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols. She met with Pruitt’s replacement a week ago, but once again, the two sides failed to reach an agreement.
The administration’s latest step effectively ends any chance of a deal ahead of the plan’s public rollout.
Martha Roberts, senior attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund, based in Washington, D.C., said in an interview with HDT that the move by the Trump adminstration jeopardizes a long tradition of American leadership in clean automobile technology and reduced air pollution.
“This move by President Trump will not only gut federal clean air standards, [but also] this unprecedented attack on state emissions standards will serve to muzzle state leadership on clean automobile standards,” she said. “However, this move shows that rolling back emissions standards has been a theme of this administration from its very beginning. Federal law clearly provides broad flexibility and authority for state leadership on air quality standards. That role has been recognized by the federal government for decades. And it is clear this administration wants to undo this American success story while degrading air quality standards nationwide and costing American families more money at the fuel pump."
For its part, the American Trucking Associations said that although the current Trump administration moves are targeting passenger cars, it will be keeping an eye for new developments that affect the trucking industry. "“ATA is closely monitoring the situation and how it may impact current and future standards for heavy-duty vehicles," said Sean McNally, press secretary and vice president of pubilic affairs for ATA. "The trucking industry has made great strides in improving its emissions by working with regulators at both the state and federal level and we would expect that to continue regardless how this plays out.”
Updated 10:00 am, July 25, 2018 to add ATA reaction.