Trump is gutting fuel standards — and automakers are begging him to stop

Trump is gutting fuel standards — and automakers are begging him to stop
White House photo

There is nothing Donald Trump likes more than knocking down protections for air or water—except, perhaps, knocking down protections for air or water that were put in place by Barack Obama. So it was a cinch that the regulations Obama put in place to increase fuel-efficiency requirements for new cars would fall in Trump’s crosshairs. That was especially true because automakers were complaining that the new rules, which would require a sharp increase in efficiency by 2025, would be difficult to meet. So automakers signed on to and championed the idea of weakening the regulations.


Then a funny thing happened. Whereas the automakers started off as the “right” edge of this argument, when it came to replacing the policy, Trump invited in climate-change deniers who were set on not just weakening the regulations, but also using auto emissions as a statement. They wanted to not just loosen the regulations, but essentially eliminate them, declaring that the government had no business trying to protect the environment, or American lungs.

And those deniers ended up with a new opponent: the automakers. What had been the side demanding regulation cuts became the side declaring that Trump was cutting way too much.

As The New York Times reports, the Trump deregulation effort soon came to be dominated by infamous climate-crisis-denier Myron Ebell. Ebell’s title at his lobbying organization is “scientist.” He is not a scientist. Instead he’s an ultraconservative political adviser who has latched on to the job of undercutting climate science as a way to make a (very good) living. He served on Trump’s transition team, and was Trump’s go-to source for wildly inaccurate statements about the Paris climate agreement. In a White House rife with liars, Ebell is a professional.

With Ebell setting the new standards, Trump’s proposal now goes much further than the automakers ever expected, or wanted.  In June, an astounding coalition of 17 automakers that have facilities in the United States joined together to urge Trump to back off the extreme deregulation planned by Ebell. The automakers have warned that not only would the proposal create “extreme instability” in the industry, but it would also make cars built to American standards absolutely “untenable” in any other market. Rather than acting as a boost to the industry, automakers see the proposal coming from the Trump White House as an active threat to their bottom line, one that will hurt carmakers, companies, and consumers.

The Trump proposal makes it a near certainty that the federal government would end up in court against the state of California over the fuel requirements and emissions regulations for cars. Which is exactly what Ebell and others on the fringe of “libertarian deregulation” want. California was given express authority in the Clean Air Act to set its own standards for vehicles, and other states can opt in to those standards. For the most part, federal regulators and California regulators have tried to keep requirements fairly close. Under Obama, the federal numbers were expressly created to make America into a single auto market by setting federal rules that also passed muster with California, so every car sold in the country had to meet only a single standard. In exchange for the rules Obama proposed, California essentially agreed to put its own rule-setting ability on hold.

But the right has been looking for an opportunity to challenge California’s override authority for decades. By forcing rules with lower standards than those accepted by California regulators, Trump’s proposal would immediately split the United States into two different markets with two very different sets of requirements. California and 13 other states would be “clean America,” while the remaining 36 states would be in “dirty America.”

The split market would put a severe burden on automakers. And since the U.S. standard would also be much weaker than the standards going into effect in Europe and other markets, it would mean that automakers in the U.S. would be faced with a genuine dilemma. A car built to the Trump standards couldn’t be sold in 14 states, and it couldn’t be exported. But it could potentially be built more cheaply. So if automakers didn’t produce a vehicle just for the “dirty states,” they might be undercut by competitors who did.

That kind of split market represents a “nightmare scenario” for automakers. They want a set of requirements that are stricter than the current standards, strict enough to potentially keep California on board, but not so strict as the requirements set by Obama.

But the Trump plan on this issue seems to be similar to the plan on other issues—go forward with a known disaster, and put the planning effort into blaming someone else. In this case, White House officials have already been talking up how California “wouldn’t come to the table” to discuss either surrendering its authority or agreeing to ridiculously low standards.

The letters revealing all this inside maneuvering are only visible to the public because the Sierra Club filed a Freedom of Information Act request demanding correspondence to and from the EPA. What it shows is that the power of climate denialist groups is continuing to grow. Groups such as Ebell’s, which were regarded as on the most extreme fringe of the discussion, are now the “mainstream” inside the Trump White House.

And as multiple tweets have demonstrated, Trump is more than willing to crash the auto industry, and then blame the industry for its own demise.

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