President Donald Trump's decision to re-examine Obama-era rules that govern automobile gas mileage could be the first round of a potentially bruising political fight: revoking the ability of California and other Democratic-leaning states to set their own, tougher car-emission standards.
Environmental groups are preparing for the clash, which began even before Trump acted and is likely to be settled by the courts.
California's unique status dates to 1970, in the early days of the Clean Air Act. Because of the state's smoggy skies, Congress gave California a "waiver," allowing it to set stricter pollution standards than the rest of the nation. The California standard is now used by at least a dozen, mostly Northeastern states, including New York and Massachusetts.
The Trump administration has said it wants one uniform fuel mileage requirement for automakers across the U.S. Environmental groups and California officials fear that the administration will try to revoke the waiver, and they're taking action to fight it in court.
California Gov. Jerry Brown denounced the Trump administration's move, telling Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt in a letter Wednesday it was a "gift to polluters." Brown warned auto makers in another letter Wednesday that his state would take the "necessary steps" to preserve its current emissions standards.
Buttressing Brown's threats, California filed a motion late Tuesday to intervene in a new lawsuit brought by auto manufacturers against the EPA, a move immediately joined by New York State. The actions will allow the two states to defend the tougher emissions standards in court.
"President Trump's action represents a dramatic wrong turn in our nation's efforts to fight air pollution from passenger cars and trucks and protect the health of our children, seniors and all communities," said New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
Trump took the first step toward a legal showdown on Wednesday in Michigan when he announced that the government will re-examine fuel economy requirements for 2022-2025. The rules were affirmed in the waning days of the Obama administration as part of a broader effort to control greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.
Although the Trump administration says it hasn't decided whether to weaken the requirements, Trump has promised the CEOs of major car companies that he'll reduce "unnecessary regulations." His EPA chief, Pruitt, has said he doesn't believe carbon dioxide is a primary contributor to global warming, putting him at odds with Obama's EPA and mainstream climate science.
"These standards are costly for automakers and the American people," Pruitt said Wednesday. He promised a "thorough review" that will "help ensure this national program is good for consumers and good for the environment."
Environmental groups predict Trump will weaken the standards, which now require the fleet of new cars and trucks to average 36 miles per gallon in real-world driving conditions by 2025, about 10 mpg (4.25 kpl) higher than the current standard. The auto industry is concerned that the standards will be hard to meet because people are buying more trucks and SUVs and shunning fuel-efficient cars.
The Trump administration downplayed any potential fight, saying officials have more than a year to resolve differences. A decision is not due until April 2018.
Currently, California and federal standards are mostly the same. But if Trump relaxes the standards, California and the other states likely would keep the 36 mpg rule in place, potentially creating two standards. Since about 40 percent of the nation's vehicles are in states that follow California rules, automakers probably would conform to them rather than build two different vehicles for the U.S. market.
That means California would end up setting national policy. That's a problem for the industry because car prices could rise and hurt sales. The EPA estimates the current standards will cost $875 per vehicle, while a study commissioned by the auto industry estimates it at $1,249 per vehicle by 2025. However, the government says fuel savings would more than offset the added costs.
If no agreement is reached, the administration could try to revoke California's latest waiver, setting up an epic legal battle over who controls emissions and fuel economy policies.
A senior White House official said Tuesday that the administration wants to negotiate one national standard. "We welcome California to the table," the official told reporters in a conference call. He spoke on condition of anonymity even though Trump has criticized the use of unnamed sources.
"If California wants to go a different direction (in 2018), we'll have to deal with it at that point," he said.
The feds have some leverage: A new waiver will be needed in 2025.
Regardless of what happens in the U.S., automakers who sell globally will still have to improve vehicle efficiency because of rising fuel economy standards in the rest of the world. China, Europe and Japan will all require fleets to average 47 miles per gallon or higher by 2020.
Associated Press writers Dee-Ann Durbin in Detroit and Ellen Knickmeyer in San Francisco contributed. Daly reported from Washington.
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