California’s car dealers worry about Trump rollback on emissions standards

By San Diego Union-Tribune

The decision by the Trump administration Thursday to roll back aggressive fuel economy standards has some of California’s car dealers worried that unless a compromise is reached, confusion may reign among potential customers — and that would be bad for business.

“We’re hoping that we end up with one national standard and this doesn’t devolve into a giant dispute between the federal government and the California Air Resources Board and the states that follow California,” said Brian Maas, president of the California New Car Dealers Association.

The chances of finding a middle ground don’t appear promising.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced freezing targets for average miles-per-gallon targets in 2020. “More realistic standards can save lives while continuing to improve the environment,” EPA acting administrator Andrew Wheeler said.

But the response from California policymakers was swift and blunt.

Gov. Jerry Brown said the state “will fight this stupidity in every conceivable way possible.”

The Trump administration’s proposal will eliminate the sharp increases in fuel economy standards adopted by the Obama administration, with significant input from California government officials. Instead of reaching for a 54.5 miles per gallon goal for combined cars and trucks in 2025, the proposal calls for raising the target to 37 mpg and leaving it there through 2026.

California has been allowed to set tougher tailpipe emission standards than the federal government and 13 other states follow California’s rules. Altogether they make up about one-third of the cars and trucks in the country.

Since the market for the states taking their cues from California makes up such a large percentage of new vehicle sales, currently car makers manufacture their cars and trucks to adhere to the Obama administration and Golden State’s fuel efficiency standards and sell them across the country.

But the Trump White House wants to have one, uniform federal standard for fuel efficiency for all 50 states.

Officials at the Transportation Department and the EPA have said they are eager to hear from California policymakers in the upcoming 60-day public public comment period but the feeling may not be mutual.

Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the Air Resources Board, said California’s program “is in effect right now and will remain so for the foreseeable future.”

A standoff between the federal government and California raises the prospect of separate rules in separate states.

“If you can imagine a future world where, say, there’s two standards, do I go to Arizona to buy my truck? I don’t know the answer to that question,” Maas said. “I obviously don’t know how these rules are going to shake out but that’s the concern — that we’re going to have cross-border issues and some percentage of the country is going to be doing this and some percentage will be doing that and that’s not good.”

In anticipation of Thursday’s announcement, California and 17 other states in May filed a lawsuit at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to obstruct any efforts from the EPA to roll back clean car regulations.

California has prevailed in a previous case. The George W. Bush administration wanted to curb ambitious mileage targets but after a protracted fight, the courts ruled the state had the authority to put in place air pollution standards that are stricter than federal law.

Car makers are in a ticklish position. They argued the Obama era fuel efficiency targets were too aggressive and lobbied the Trump administration for relief but are now worried about the prospect of separate rules in separate states.

“What were you thinking when you threw yourselves upon the mercy of the Trump administration to try to solve your problems,” Nichols said to auto industry representatives in 2017. “It just does not make sense.”

The enhanced miles-per-gallon targets set during the Obama administration came when the government predicted new vehicle sales would be about two-thirds cars and one-third from light trucks and SUVs. But the new vehicle market has changed in recent years.

Even in California, SUV and pickup truck sales now exceed car sales — largely due to lower gasoline prices in recent years. That, the auto industry has said, makes it harder to reach a 50 miles-a-gallon standard.

“Consumers want to save money on gas, but they also want passenger space, cargo room and towing ability, and when gas prices are low, Americans tend to favor those other attributes,” said Gloria Bergquist, vice president of communications and public affairs at the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

Transportation accounts for the largest percentage of greenhouse gas emissions in California — 41 percent, according to the state’s Air Resources Board. The percentage is even higher in San Diego — 54 percent.

“The fleet of new vehicles today is the most fuel efficient ever, and they have gotten safer every year,” Luke Tonachel, director of clean vehicles and fuels at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told the Los Angeles Times.

California’s air quality rules require special oxygenated fuel blends to be refined into the state’s gasoline supply but David Hackett, president of Stillwater Associates, a transportation energy consulting company in Irvine, said Thursday’s announcement won’t have any effect on California’s “boutique” fuels.

“It is a logical question to ask,” Hackett said. “But there isn’t anything I see that is changing fuel regulations anywhere in the country. California has its own gasolines and so do other parts of the country … This has everything to do with greenhouse gas reductions and not anything to do with changing the composition of gasoline.”

This article provided by NewsEdge.