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Divided, car makers clash over California rules

The Harbor Freeway in Los Angeles at rush hour. (Photo: Joseph Sohm

An unusual battle involving the world’s major automakers has California smack in the middle.

Toyota, Chrysler, GM, Nissan, Subaru and Hyundai sided with the Trump administration in its efforts to ease mileage efficiency on rules imposed by the Obama administration.

But earlier, California signed an agreement with Ford, Honda, BMW and Volkswagen that assures more stringent rules – a move that the Trump administration denounced as illegal.

“We understand that the ARB is dealing with a vindictive assault by the Trump administration…” — Bill Magavern

The stakes are high: About 17.2 million new cars and light trucks are sold nationally, about 11.6 percent of them in California alone.

The agreement between the automakers and the California Air Resources Board has been touted in California as an environmental success, although some have mixed feelings.

“On one hand,” says Bill McGavern of the Coalition for Clean Air, “we understand that the ARB is dealing with a vindictive assault by the Trump administration,” but in reality the agreement is a “step backwards.”  He said the framework only achieves 75 percent of the emission reduction that was agreed on by the Obama administration, meaning that what would have taken only four years to accomplish will now take five.

Still, the framework is much closer to the environmental goals developed during the Obama administration than they are to the massive rollback sought by the Trump administration, but not everyone is happy about that.

Auto makers have “historically taken the position that fuel economy is the sole purview of the federal government,” he said, “though it doesn’t have to come to that.” — John Bozzella

The Association of Global Automakers has sided with the White House in an ongoing lawsuit in which the Environmental Defense Fund seeks to block the Trump administration from rolling back the emission standards.  The Association is arguing that the federal government has the final say when it comes to setting emission and fuel economy standards for passenger cars and trucks.

John Bozzella, chief executive of the automakers association, told the New York Times that his group still hoped for a middle ground.

“We can still reach an agreement that is supported by all the parties,” Mr. Bozzella said. Still, the auto industry has “historically taken the position that fuel economy is the sole purview of the federal government,” he said, “though it doesn’t have to come to that.”

In a written statement, Toyota said it “does not believe that there should be different fuel economy standards in different states,” noting that “multiple standards will result in higher vehicle prices.  And if vehicle prices increase, consumers are more likely to keep older, less efficient cars longer.”

The California Air Resources Board predated the EPA by three years and has acted as a model for many other air pollution-control laws across the U.S.

Notably, Honda is part of the Global Automakers Association but has sided with California.  As one of the four automakers who came to the agreement with the state, Honda has spoken out against the Trump administration proposals and refused to participate in the attempt to squash the framework.

Although federal law generally trumps state authority, California has traditionally been the national leader when it comes to the matter of air quality.

The California Air Resources Board, facing the smoggiest areas in the nation, predated the EPA by three years and has acted as a model for many other air pollution-control laws across the U.S.

About 14.8 million vehicles are registered in California, by far the most of any state.

In fact, California and its ARB have been so influential that President George W. Bush wanted to include a federal preemption for the state’s standards in the Energy Policy Act of 2007.  The measure was blocked by Congress.

On issues of air quality enforcement, the rest of the country has looked towards California.  The Trump rollbacks would be the first federal move to disrupt this dynamic — which has been in place for nearly half a century.

All of the automakers involved say they are driven by a desire to cut down on regulatory uncertainty.

Even if the federal government doesn’t follow California’s lead, the nation’s most populous state will have a dramatic impact on the auto industry simply because of the sheer number of vehicles sold in California. New car sales are expected to hit nearly 2 million in 2019. About 14.8 million vehicles are registered in California, by far the most of any state.

The agreed upon framework is to be in place through 2025, which is also the last year of a second term for President Trump, meaning that the security of the agreement between California and the four large automakers will likely be longer lasting, even if it means higher standards for emission reduction.

Editor’s Note: Bryndon Madison is a Capitol Weekly intern from UC Santa Barbara.


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