Editorial: Automakers supported Trump’s clean-car rollback. Biden shouldn’t bend to their wishes now

Cars fill a freeway bumper to bumper.
Automakers have abandoned the fight to block California from setting its own standards on auto emissions. Above, the 110 Freeway in L.A.
(Los Angeles Times)

After siding with President Trump’s reckless attempt to roll back clean-car standards and stalling the fight against climate change, a group of auto companies announced Tuesday that “in a gesture of goodwill” they would withdraw from a lawsuit challenging California’s authority to cut vehicle emissions.

Their magnanimity is underwhelming.

For years, Toyota, Subaru, General Motors and their allies have waged a cynical campaign to relax regulations adopted during the Obama administration to reduce future tailpipe emissions and improve fuel economy from passenger cars and trucks. The companies have claimed to be environmental stewards while working to weaken the nation’s single most important effort to cut planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions.

Worse, they tried to take away California’s long-held authority to set its own vehicle emissions rules. Only now, with Trump gone and President Biden planning an ambitious climate agenda, do these companies reverse course and call for collaboration. That’s goodwill?


Just as infuriating, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation — whose members produce 99% of the cars and passenger trucks sold in the U.S. — put out a statement saying its members want to work with the Biden administration to develop new national rules to cut greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles. The reductions, the group said, should fall “roughly midway between current standards and those of the former Obama administration.”

Why on Earth would Biden even consider such a request? The planet is careening toward climate catastrophe. Every year we see and feel the worsening consequences for our failure to curb greenhouse gas emissions. We are running out of time to reverse the damage. Yet the nation’s automakers have the gall to ask Biden to develop clean-car standards that are weaker than those adopted almost a decade ago when he was vice president.

It’s worth remembering how this fight came to be. The fuel efficiency standards were developed by the Obama administration and California, and agreed to by automakers as part of the taxpayer bailout of General Motors and Chrysler. The standards required cars and light trucks to become steadily more fuel efficient so that by 2025, they would achieve an average of more than 50 miles per gallon. Automakers were expected to meet the target by developing more hybrid and electric models, gradually cutting smoggy tailpipe pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in the process.

When Trump was elected, automakers abandoned that earlier agreement and persuaded Trump to slash the planned increases in mileage standards. Under the new rule, automakers have to reach an average of 40 miles per gallon by 2026, which would allow companies to continue to produce more gas-guzzling SUVs and trucks.

The Trump administration also sought to revoke California’s power to set stricter vehicle emission rules. Naturally, the state sued to block the move. Most major automakers sided with Trump, saying they didn’t want to have to contend with both a Trump standard and a California standard.

However, Ford, Honda, BMW and Volkswagen broke ranks and made a deal with California. They agreed to meet a slightly weaker standard than originally set by the Obama administration — hitting 50 miles per gallon in 2026 instead of 2025 — but still more aggressive than the Trump rule.


Not long after Biden’s victory, General Motors and Nissan exited the lawsuit over California’s authority. Tuesday’s decision by the remaining automakers to withdraw from the lawsuit puts an end to that ugly fight.

So what happens now? It could take a year or more to unwind Trump’s weak regulation. In the meantime, California leaders are pushing the Biden administration to use the state’s voluntary agreement with Ford, Honda and other carmakers as a model to get companies to quickly adopt fuel economy and emissions reductions. That would be a fine temporary measure.

But California’s standard was a compromise enacted as an alternative to Trump’s rollback. That should be the starting point for discussion, not the endpoint. Clean-car technology has advanced much since the Obama administration’s rule was adopted, as have the problems caused by global warming. Biden should be far more aggressive in pushing the auto industry to accelerate the transition to zero-emission vehicles now. A new national clean-car standard could be the single biggest step this country has ever taken to cut greenhouse gas emissions. There’s no time to lose.