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Trump warns California that emissions deal with automakers may be illegal

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler in Washington in June.
(Win McNamee / Getty Images)

The Trump administration sent California a stern warning Friday that its agreement with four major automakers to reduce car pollution appears to violate federal law.

The letter from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation is the latest sign of President Trump’s anger at California and the car manufacturers that have bucked his plans to roll back regulations put in place to combat climate change.

In their agreement with the state, which was announced in July, Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW all agreed to voluntarily increase fuel efficiency and reduce emissions, essentially ignoring the Trump administration’s plans to roll back car pollution standards. State officials have been trying to persuade other companies to join the agreement; the White House has been trying to prevent that.

Friday’s letter threatened “legal consequences” if California does not abandon the agreement, but did not say what officials might actually do. It reiterated the administration’s long-held belief that only the federal government has the authority to set fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions standards for cars.

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“Congress has squarely vested the authority to set fuel economy standards for new motor vehicles, and nationwide standards for GHG vehicle emissions, with the federal government, not with California or any other State,” the letter said. GHG is an abbreviation for greenhouse gases, which cause global warming.

Further escalating tensions between the state and the Trump administration, the Department of Justice has launched a preliminary investigation into whether the automakers violated federal antitrust laws by reaching the agreement with California.

A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on the inquiry, news of which was first reported by the Wall Street Journal. The auto companies said in statements that they would cooperate with the inquiry.

California officials denounced the administration’s actions.

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“The Trump administration has been attempting and failing to bully car companies for months now,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in response to news of the inquiry. “We remain undeterred. California stands up to bullies and will keep fighting for stronger clean-car protections that protect the health and safety of our children and families.”

Mary Nichols, head of the California Air Resources Board, who negotiated the agreement with the four automakers, chided the administration for seeking to overturn the deal.

“The U.S. Department of Justice brings its weight to bear against auto companies in an attempt to frighten them out of voluntarily making cleaner, more efficient cars and trucks than EPA wants. Consumers might ask, who is Andy Wheeler protecting?” she said in a statement, referring to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler.

The saber rattling toward the state and the auto companies comes amid continued efforts by the administration to roll back Obama administration policies designed to combat climate change.

During President Obama’s tenure, his administration announced several policies aimed at limiting U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The two most consequential were a plan announced in 2015 to reduce the use of coal in generating electricity and rules negotiated in 2011 requiring car companies to produce a significantly more fuel-efficient fleet of vehicles.

The Trump administration has been trying to undo both of those policies. In June, the administration moved to overturn the power plant rules Obama put in place. Efforts to roll back the fuel economy rules have been underway for much of Trump’s tenure, but the administration has had trouble bringing the rollbacks to completion, and it’s unclear whether the administration will be able to complete its plan.

Independent scientists have poked holes in the agencies’ data, senior political officials tasked with working on the rollback have left the administration, and automakers, which originally asked Trump to soften the requirements, have revolted in opposition to the president’s proposal, which they say will hurt their bottom line.

The 2011 fuel economy rules required car manufacturers to produce increasingly fuel-efficient vehicles so that by 2025 the nation’s cars and trucks would average more than 50 miles per gallon.

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Trump’s EPA and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have proposed freezing mileage targets at about 37 miles per gallon for cars after 2020. While acknowledging the plan would increase oil consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, the federal agencies have argued that the current standards endanger drivers by making new, safer cars unaffordable.

Talks between California and federal officials aimed at coming up with a compromise broke down earlier this year, and in June, the administration rejected a plea from 17 car companies to restart the negotiations.

The automakers fear that the administration’s headlong push to roll back the fuel economy rules would lead to years of litigation and uncertainty, which would harm their business. Their hesitation, and the resistance from California to any rollback, has angered Trump.

“Henry Ford would be very disappointed if he saw his modern-day descendants wanting to build a much more expensive car, that is far less safe and doesn’t work as well, because execs don’t want to fight California regulators,” he wrote in a tweet last month.

The agreement between California and the four automakers was a significant blow to Trump’s efforts. The companies that joined the deal account for about 30% of the new cars and SUVs sold in the U.S. If enough additional automakers to join the pact — pledging to adhere to California’s higher standards regardless of what the federal government does — it would essentially make Trump’s rollback effort irrelevant.

In an effort to limit California’s power in the auto market, Trump is also considering revoking a decades-old rule that has allowed the state to set car pollution standards that are tougher than the federal government’s.

That step would likely put the state and the EPA on a path to years of fighting in court.

Since the administration’s earliest days, officials have threatened to try to revoke that rule. California officials have denounced the idea.

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California’s special authority to regulate car pollution dates back to the 1960s, when Los Angeles was enveloped in a thick layer of smog that state officials came to see as a public health crisis. By the time 1970 Clean Air Act changes took effect, the state had already enacted its own tailpipe emission controls.

Concerned that each state would pass different regulations, Congress decided that the EPA would set car pollution standards for the nation. But it carved out an exception for California, requiring the EPA to grant the state a waiver to set its own rules, provided they were at least as stringent as the federal ones.

Other states could choose to follow either California’s regulations or those set by the federal government. Currently, 13 other states, mostly along the coasts, have adopted California’s standards.


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