In a reversal of the way business is usually done in Washington, DC, the Trump administration is lobbying U.S. automakers—not the other way around—to support an extreme regulatory rollback that would freeze vehicle fuel efficiency standards at their present level.
“Trump officials thought they were doing the auto industry a favour” when they decided to freeze gas mileage standards last year,” the Washington Post reports. “But automakers aren’t so sure.”
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So “White House officials have launched an intense lobbying campaign as they seek to line up support for a proposal they hope to finalize this summer,” the Post states. “In two separate discussions in less than three weeks, according to several participants, the White House has urged major auto companies to endorse the administration’s plan to freeze fuel standards for cars and smaller pickup trucks between model years 2020 and 2026. But domestic and foreign automakers have continued to raise concerns about the proposal, dubbed the Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles rule, because California and other states plan to require vehicles in their states to meet tighter emissions limits.”
Although they initially lobbied the Trump administration to water down Obama-era fuel efficiency and tailpipe emission standards, U.S. automakers sound found themselves “walking a tightrope” between a White House that expected their support for a more aggressive rollback, and the prospect that the federal move would split the North American auto market in two. As far back as May 2018, Donald Trump was delivering a “pointed message” that manufacturers should get onboard with the administration plan.
But tensions amped up February 21, after the White House broke off negotiations with California on the rollback plan. “State officials said the administration never actually offered a compromise proposal that could serve as the basis of a real negotiation,” the Post writes. “California received an exemption under the Clean Air Act to set its own emissions standards a half-century ago, but the Trump administration is poised to challenge its exemption as part of the package the Environmental Protection Agency and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are racing to complete.”
“We’re doing it for you, we’re deregulating the sector for you,” an unnamed senior administration official told the Post. “We hope you get behind us.”
But the Auto Alliance, whose members produce more than 70% of the country’s cars and light trucks, still supports “year-over-year increases in fuel economy” and has reservations about the administration’s approach, said spokesperson Gloria Bergquist. “Years of litigation is not helpful. It’s going to be difficult for the industry, and it’s ultimately going to be bad for customers because it could increase the price of cars,” she said. “It’s still a negotiation going on, and it’s not done till it’s done.”
Honda Assistant Vice President Robert Bienenfeld took a similar tack. “Our position has not changed and we are still urging the parties to negotiate,” he said.
But Mary D. Nichols, chair of the powerful California Air Resources Board, wasn’t entirely impressed. “She said California regulators had been clear all along that they intended to stick with the steadily increasing fuel efficiency standards that the federal government and the auto industry agreed to during the Obama administration,” the Post states.
“They clearly intended to get some flexibilities built into the enforcement of the existing regulations, and maybe a little more time and ability to use some of the credits that they had built up over time,” Nichols told the paper. “And now, at this point, they are facing years of litigation. It’s an unfortunate situation, but as I said, it’s not our problem.”
The Post says Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), ranking member on the Senate and Environment and Public Works Committee, is urging automakers to “publicly disavow” the administration plan.
“The automobile industry should think twice — and then for a third or fourth time — before tying its future to a proposal that is so legally flawed that it will surely be overturned by the courts immediately,” he said in a prepared statement. “Costly litigation and regulatory uncertainty are entirely avoidable. There is a clear deal to be had between the administration and the state of California, and the automobile industry should be up in arms until that deal is struck.”