By David R. Baker
The Trump administration could move this week to revoke California's decades-old ability to set its own pollution limits for cars, a potential blow to the state's fight against global warming.
The move, widely expected for months, will ignite another pitched legal battle between California and federal officials, who spent much of the George W. Bush administration sparring in court over the state's efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions from cars.
And for automakers, it could create years of uncertainty over which standards their cars must meet.
"These were issues that were resolved 9 years ago, and it's almost like picking at a scab that healed long ago and reopening it, only to cause the automakers a lot of bleeding," said Simon Mui, a senior scientist and clean vehicles specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.
Bloomberg reported Monday that the administration this week will propose stopping planned increases in fuel efficiency after 2020 and challenging California's unique ability to set its own auto air pollution standards. Thirteen other states and the District of Columbia also follow California's emission standards.
The possibility that the administration could take both steps was first reported in April and enraged California officials, who promptly sued to block any freeze in fuel-efficiency standards. The office of Gov. Jerry Brown declined to comment before seeing the proposal.
Since 1970, California has had under the federal Clean Air Act the ability to set air pollution standards that are more stringent than the federal government's. Although the state initially used that power to regulate smog-causing pollutants, it has become a key weapon in the state's fight against climate change.
In 2002, the state imposed on automakers new standards for how much greenhouse gas their cars could produce, with the requirements growing tougher over time. The Bush administration sued, arguing that the move would require tightening fuel-economy standards, which were under federal control. Automakers, who didn't want to face different fuel requirements in California and the rest of the country, backed the administration.
California, however, prevailed, and President Barack Obama took California's standards nationwide in 2009, his first big action against global warming. So California's standards are now in sync with the federal government's.
The Trump administration has made rolling back Obama's environmental and climate programs a high priority. Yet the federal government, under Obama, already approved California's emission standards -- and the underlying fuel standards -- for car model years 2017 through 2025. By 2025, the standards call for a fleet-wide average mileage, for cars and light trucks, of more than 50 miles per gallon (although the actual average would be lower, due to credits and loopholes).
"They can't just pull something they've already given, without public comment," Mui said. "They're on legally shaky ground, here."
For California, blocking future fuel-mileage increases and stripping the state of its ability to set its own standards would imperil the state's ambitious climate goals.
An annual report issued this month by the California Air Resources Board found that California has already met its 2020 goal for cutting greenhouse gas emissions back to 1990 levels. State law now calls for slashing emissions another 40 percent by 2030. And yet, the state's emissions from transportation have been rising, due to a strong economy, relatively cheap fuel, and consumers' preference for SUVs over small cars or electric vehicles.
"In California, transportation has been the only sector where emissions have been flat or even going up, so this is very important," said Daniel Sperling, a member of the Air Resources Board and founding director of UC Davis' Institute of Transportation Studies. "By simple math, if we don't get the substantial reductions from vehicles, we'll have to get them from industry or some other way."
The administration's actions could place automakers in a bind.
Shortly after President Trump's election, an auto industry lobbying group sent him a letter asking for more flexibility in the fuel-mileage program. But the prospect of an across-the-board freeze -- and another protracted fight between California and the federal government -- appears to have unnerved the industry. Top executives of Ford, for example, spoke out this spring against a rollback.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which sent Trump the letter, on Monday referred to a statement the group issued in April, which praised the administration for revisiting the standards but said the companies remain committed to increasing mileage per gallon.
"One of the reasons they've been somewhat quiet is because they're torn," said Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Autotrader and KBB.com, speaking of the car companies. "They're in a tough spot."
American drivers, he said, clearly prefer SUVs, which will make achieving the 50-mile-per-gallon fleet average difficult. And yet, auto companies don't want California to once again have its own standard -- the scenario if the Trump administration succeeded in rolling back federal fuel-economy standards but California was able to maintain its emissions requirements.
And a long legal fight between the state and federal governments could make it difficult for the automakers to plan, since the process of designing, engineering and introducing a new car typically takes more than three years, Brauer said.
"California's not just going to roll over," he said. "That means uncertainty, and uncertainty is synonymous with expense in the auto industry."
(c)2018 the San Francisco Chronicle