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California keeps fighting for clean cars as Trump digs in

California keeps fighting for clean cars as Trump digs in
A Toyota shop foreman recharges a Prius parked in Puente Hills, Calif. on Nov. 14, 2012. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

It’s disappointing but not surprising that the Trump administration has stopped trying to negotiate a deal with California to avert a fight over fuel efficiency standards.

For months, officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board have been meeting, ostensibly, to reach a compromise that would preserve a single national set of rules for how many miles per gallon new cars, SUVs and small trucks must achieve on average. But those talks were pretty much a waste of time. The Trump administration apparently is determined to abandon the improvements in fuel efficiency that the Obama administration had ordered automakers to make by 2025, and instead freeze the mileage standards at 2020 levels.

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That means the dispute will continue in court, probably for years. California and 16 other states have already sued, arguing that the EPA acted arbitrarily to overturn the 2025 standards, violating its own rules and the federal Clean Air Act. California is also prepared to fight any attempt by the Trump administration to take away the state’s unique authority to set its own vehicle emission mandates.

The Obama administration’s mileage rules were a crucial piece of the national effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions. California had agreed to forgo more stringent state standards in favor of national regulations that would have a bigger impact on greenhouse gases. With the Trump reversal, California leaders vowed to pursue tougher standards on their own.

If that happens, automakers — which signed on to Obama’s rules, then pushed President Trump to relax the 2025 targets — may face the costly choice of either meeting California’s tougher regulations for all their vehicles or manufacturing different versions of their models for different parts of the country.

The Trump administration’s rollback is especially frustrating and dangerous because cars and trucks are America’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. The United States cannot address climate change in a meaningful way without cleaner cars.

The standards were slated to improve the average fuel economy of new cars and trucks by 50% by 2025, to almost 55 miles per gallon. To meet the targets, automakers were expected to develop and sell more hybrid and electric models, gradually cutting smoggy tailpipe pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions in the process.

While the Trump administration rolls back ambitious vehicle standards, many of the world’s leading economies are embracing innovative clean-car technology. China, the largest auto market, plans to ban the sale of new vehicles powered by gasoline or diesel in the coming decades. France, Britain, Norway and India have also pledged to phase out fossil fuel vehicles.

With the federal government moving backward on vehicle standards, it’s up to California and other states to keep up the fight for cleaner cars and a healthier planet.

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