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Inside the breakdown of auto emission talks between California and the Trump White House

Inside the breakdown of auto emission talks between California and the Trump White House
California Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols, left, Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra and then-Gov. Jerry Brown announce they would fight the Trump White House's plan to roll back auto emission rules. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

There was a fair amount of perplexity at the California Air Resources Board on Feb. 21, when the Trump administration abruptly announced that it had decided to “discontinue discussions” with the state’s air quality regulator over the administration’s proposal to gut federal auto emissions standards.

The general reaction at CARB’s Sacramento office was: “What discussions?”

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That’s not to say that CARB officials had never met with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which were the frontline agencies in the proposed rollback. Only that it was plain from the first that the government was not going to budge.

At no time, in any meetings, did the EPA or NHTSA or the White House suggest there was anything in the proposals they would bend on at all.


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That’s the view of CARB Chairwoman Mary Nichols, who participated in the meetings.

“At no time, in any meetings, did the EPA or NHTSA or the White House suggest there was anything in the proposals they would bend on at all,” Nichols told me.

It didn’t help matters that the Trump administration had stated forthrightly that it aimed to revoke the long-standing federal waiver allowing California to set its own auto emissions rules, which was written into the federal Clean Air Act in the 1970s.

Federal officials, of course, have a different view of the process. “We came to the table to figure out a workable path forward,” says Amanda Gunasekara, who was a clean air official at the EPA until a few weeks ago, when she left to form a nonprofit devoted to “informing the public about the environmental and economic gains made under the Trump administration.”

“Time and again,” Gunasekara told me, “the California team was dismissive and never prepared to engage in the type of conversation you would need to get to that point.” (We sought official comment from EPA and NHTSA, but neither provided a response.)

On the surface, this looks like what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, though it’s not clear which side is which. Deeper down, however, there’s much more at stake.

Trump’s proposed rollback of auto emissions standards is part of an ideology-driven resistance to climate change science; the state’s resistance reflects the scientific consensus that greenhouse gas emissions are a mortal threat to the environment, and that in California some 40% of those emissions come from auto and truck tailpipes.

For decades, the state has been in the forefront of the battle to reduce those emissions.

What’s at issue are auto mileage and emissions goals established by NHTSA and EPA in 2012, covering model years 2017 and beyond, in effect for 2017 through 2025. At that point, average vehicular efficiency must be 54.5 miles per gallon.

The rules were scheduled for a “midterm evaluation” in 2018. The automakers hoped for at least a modest loosening of the standards, based on their claim that American consumers were so hooked on SUVs and resistant to hybrid and full-electric cars that they couldn’t conceivably meet the 2025 goals.

But then Trump got elected. The Obama-era EPA rushed the midterm review to completion, issuing a final judgment the week before Trump’s inauguration stating that there was no reason to reduce the standards. CARB came to the same conclusion.

The 2012 rule was based on the expectation that U.S. vehicle ownership would be composed of two-thirds cars and one-third SUVs and other light trucks, says Gloria Bergquist, spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. “It’s the opposite now,” she says.

Soon after taking office, Trump revoked the midterm review. Then, on Aug. 24, 2018, the administration proposed to freeze the auto mileage standard at the 2020 level, which is 36.9 mpg. The proposal challenged California to compromise on an alternative.

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Yet what has never been clear is why California should engage with this process at all. Its waiver authority has been in place for nearly half a century, and already has passed muster with federal courts. Its emissions standards are effectively written into state law, are followed by 11 other states making up 40% of the U.S. auto market, are based on solid science, and are crucial elements in a program to cut greenhouse gases.

California offered to compromise on the “slope of the curve,” Nichols says, say by giving automakers a bit more time to meet the most stringent goals, in exchange for a commitment to meet them by the ultimate deadline. But the feds wanted more.

Possibly aware that a case couldn’t be made for rolling back the standards on the basis of climate science or clean air rules, the administration cast its proposal almost entirely as an auto safety initiative, even dubbing it the Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient Vehicles Rule, or SAFE.

It’s not exactly news that the administration’s published backup for its proposed rule change is a mess — indeed, some of its assertions are so wacky they’ve made the entire package into a nationwide laughingstock.

Fundamentally, the proposal claims that the rule change would reduce auto fatalities because (a) the more stringent mileage rules would prompt manufacturers to make lighter cars, which are more dangerous; (b) the better mileage would prompt car owners to drive more, which is more dangerous; and (c) higher-mileage cars would be more expensive, so people would stick with their older cars, which are more dangerous.

The most comprehensive debunking came from 11 experts at leading universities, including UC, USC, Yale and MIT, published in Science in December. They reported that the analysis supporting the rollback had “fundamental flaws and inconsistencies, is at odds with basic economic theory … [and] is misleading.”

Among other things, they observed that the proposal vastly overstated the “rebound effect” — how much more driving motorists do when the price per mile falls, thanks to higher mileage efficiency — and inexplicably argued that U.S. auto ownership would shrink by 6 million vehicles even though the rollback would make cars more affordable.

Their conclusion evoked physicist Wolfgang Pauli’s classic put-down that a colleague’s paper was so incompetent it was “not even wrong.”

But they weren’t alone. American Honda issued a blistering comment in October. Honda said that the proposal “invites litigation and regulatory uncertainty, stalls long-term strategic industry planning, puts at risk American global competitiveness, exacerbates climate-related environmental impacts, and slows industry readiness for a widely acknowledged … transition to vehicle electrification.”

Like other critics, the company took issue with the administration’s claim on automotive safety. If the government used the proper math, Honda said, it would be clear that the original plan was safer than the new proposal.

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Gunasekara defended the filing: “What the agencies put out was a well-thought-out, well-substantiated document,” she says. “Some folks have brought to the table some criticisms, but we want people to take a look at the document — that’s part of the regulatory process.” Some of the data may be adjusted in response to the critiques, she indicated, but that won’t be known until the administration issues a final rule, expected later this spring or summer.

The message oozing from between the lines of Honda’s analysis was that the auto industry opposed the administration’s obstinate approach. The automakers had been hoping for some sort of compromise between California and the feds, easing the path toward the “one national program” that would allow them to build cars complying with a single standard nationwide.

Even more important, the industry hankered after a standard that would be “durable” — that is, not so extreme a rollback that it would provoke challenges in the courts and prompt a future administration to overturn the Trump rule. That would be a nightmare for companies trying to make design and manufacturing decisions that would hold for the next decade or more. A ham-handed effort to preempt California would “have precisely the opposite effect,” Honda observed.

“It’s clear that the administration is on one path and California is on another,” Bergquist says.

Nichols says that was the state’s impression from the start. She says federal officials, including former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, always made clear that his intention was to revoke California’s waiver. She met with Pruitt only once, at an official event in San Francisco, before he was ousted in July 2018 over ethics issues.

Pruitt seemed ever eager to issue joint news releases stating that the state and federal government were making progress, but Nichols refused. “We weren’t willing to have it appear that we were agreeing to things we didn’t agree with,” she told me. At one point in May, when Pruitt and NHTSA issued a joint statement calling a meeting with CARB “productive,” Nichols responded with a tweet:

“Sounds like a great meeting based on the WH press release. Too bad it’s not the one we attended.”

Pruitt’s successor, Andrew Wheeler, has a more accommodating demeanor, Nichols says, but hasn’t backed off from any of the administration’s goals. In any case, the rollback appears to be driven mostly by NHTSA, an arm of the Department of Transportation that is led by Heidi King, who has been criticized for placing a commitment to deregulation ahead of safety and environmental issues that should be the agency’s top priorities.

The auto industry’s fears that the Trump White House’s ideological fixation on rolling back the standards will result in fragmenting national standards and more uncertainty are well taken. If the Trump White House really tries to revoke California’s waiver it will have a legal fight on its hands, and California is confident that it will win.

“There’s no question that there will be litigation,” Nichols says. “There’s some question of who sues who, but we’ll be in court.”

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