After initially lobbying the Trump administration to water down Obama-era fuel efficiency and tailpipe emission standards, U.S. automakers now find themselves “walking a tightrope” between a White House that expects their support for a more aggressive rollback, and the prospect that the federal move will split the North American auto market in two.
At a White House meeting that was to take place today, Donald Trump was expected to “deliver a pointed message” that manufacturers should get onboard with the administration plan, the New York Times reports. At an advance preparatory session for the meeting, “White House officials, including Chris Liddell, the deputy chief of staff, made it known…that Mr. Trump was unhappy that automakers had not rallied around the proposed rollbacks,” the paper adds, citing one industry participant.
But in recent House of Representatives testimony, top auto industry Mitch Bainwol took a more measured tone, urging the administration “to find a solution that continues to increase fuel efficiency standards,” setting the stage for some awkward moments when the meeting takes place.
“On one hand, they are eager to stay in the good graces of a president who not only is intent on moving forward his deregulatory agenda, but who is also capable, if so inclined, of hurling insults at automakers on Twitter or pushing for damaging tariffs,” the Times notes. “At the same time, automakers are eager to find a way to work with California, which is intent on sticking with the Obama-era rules and has threatened to sue if the federal government gets in the way.”
But that’s not the way a key administration advisor sees it.
“He has seen them on his side, and now there is disagreement about how far this should go,” said Myron Ebell, the climate denier who led the Trump transition team for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Ebell’s interpretation is that “the automakers have succumbed to Stockholm syndrome” in their position on tailpipe standards, he told the Times. “They now identify with their kidnappers, and need therapy to recover.”
The Times report points to a different kind of shock therapy that may soon be aimed in the White House’s direction.
“Automakers worry that a drastic rollback of fuel efficiency regulations will alienate the state of California, which has the unique authority under the Clean Air Act to set its own air pollution rules,” the paper notes. “The state’s threat to stick with the Obama rules or to sue the federal government raises the spectre of a messy court battle during which the American auto market could be split along two competing sets of fuel-economy standards, something the auto industry would like to avoid.”
But a draft regulatory plan now under development by EPA and the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) seems set to inflame the situation. Judging by a leaked draft, the proposal “wouldn’t outright revoke the state’s ability to set pollution standards, but it asserts that a 1975 law prohibits states from setting their own limits on greenhouse gas emissions,” Bloomberg reports.
“According to a summary of the plan released by Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, the agencies’ draft proposal recommends freezing the standards from model year 2020 through 2026, setting fuel economy requirements at a 37 mile per gallon fleet average in those years instead of rising each year.”
The same approach has been rejected by U.S. federal courts, not once, but twice. Legal observers contacted by Bloomberg disagreed on how serious a problem that poses for the administration.
“It strikes me as an extraordinarily weak legal argument,” said UCLA law professor Ann Carlson.
“I think it really is very much an open question,” countered Jeff Holmstead, a former assistant EPA administrator during the Bush administration.
Much of the discussion centres on the 2009 waiver that gave California the right to set its own fuel efficiency standards, put an end to “heated litigation” on the topic, and gave the industry a single national standard to adhere to, Bloomberg notes. “Since 2010, it’s been clear that all of these standards can live together harmoniously,” said Jody Freeman, a Harvard environmental law professor who helped negotiate the original deal. “So now it’s somewhat ironic to say ‘Well, there’s this terrible conflict and because of all this conflict we have to preempt them.’ On its face, it’s flying against all the evidence so far.”
In the light, she said, the pre-emption plan in the EPA-NHTSA draft “looks like an effort to do an end-run around the waiver.”