Automakers Drop Efforts to Derail California Climate Rules

Source: By Coral Davenport, New York Times • Posted: Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Momentum is shifting toward a clean-car future as more automakers end their legal efforts to block California’s tough fuel economy standards.

New cars on a dock at the Port of Los Angeles in April.
Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

WASHINGTON — Toyota, Fiat Chrysler and several other major automakers said Tuesday they would no longer try to block California from setting its own strict fuel-economy standards, signaling that the auto industry is ready to work with President Biden on his largest effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The decision by the companies was widely expected, coming after General Motors dropped its support for the Trump-era effort just weeks after the presidential election. But the shift may help the Biden administration move quickly to reinstate national fuel-efficiency standards that would control planet-warming auto pollution, this time with support from industry giants that fought such regulations for years.

“After four years of putting us in reverse, it is time to restart and build a sustainable future, grow domestic manufacturing, and deliver clean cars for America,” said Gina McCarthy, the senior White House climate change adviser. “We need to move forward — and fast.”

The auto giants’ announcements come on top of a 2020 commitment by five other companies — Ford, Honda, BMW, Volkswagen and Volvo — that they would abide by California’s tough standards. And last week, G.M. pledged to sell only zero-emissions vehicles by 2035, a move that would put the company in line with another recent California policy banning the sales of internal-combustion vehicles by that year.

Tuesday’s move also marked a stark reversal for California’s influence on Washington policymaking. After President Donald J. Trump rolled back Obama-era auto pollution rules that had been modeled after California’s state-level rules, he then blocked the state’s authority from setting such rules. Now Mr. Biden is expected to use California as a model for swiftly reinstating national rules.

“We’re going to continue to play an important role in pushing the federal government and the auto companies,” vowed Jared Blumenfeld, the California secretary of environmental protection, who added that Mr. Biden had recently spoken with Gavin Newsom, California’s governor, about using the state’s auto emissions polices as a guide to federal policies.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, left, and Jared Blumenfeld, the state’s secretary of environmental protection, in 2019.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In a statement, the auto companies, represented by the industry group Coalition for Sustainable Automotive Regulation, said the lawsuit started by the Trump administration to block California’s fuel economy rules no longer had their support: “We are aligned with the Biden Administration’s goals to achieve year-over-year improvements in fuel economy standards that provide meaningful climate and national energy security benefits.”

They added, “In a gesture of good faith and to find a constructive path forward, the C.S.A.R. has decided to withdraw from this lawsuit in order to unify the auto industry behind a single national program with ambitious, achievable standards.”

Mr. Trump had made the rollback of Obama-era fuel economy standards the centerpiece of his deregulatory agenda. The Obama-era standards, which were modeled on California’s, would have required auto companies to make and sell vehicles that reached an average fuel economy of about 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. The standards, which would have eliminated about six billion tons of planet-warming carbon dioxide pollution over the lifetime of the vehicles, stood as the single largest federal policy ever enacted to reduce climate change.

The Trump administration last year rolled back that standard to about 40 miles per gallon by 2026 — a move which would have effectively allowed most of that carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. California, however, reached a separate deal with the five automakers, in which they agreed to reach a standard of 51 miles per gallon by 2026. The Trump administration, backed by G.M. and other automakers, blocked California’s legal authority to set those standards.

Now that G.M., Toyota and Fiat Chrysler have dropped out of that lawsuit, Biden administration officials have one less speed bump ahead of a new federal standard. The White House is also expected to explore ways to adopt the California policy requiring all new vehicles sold after 2035 to release no emissions.

Pool photo by Stefani Reynolds

The Biden administration is already moving swiftly to craft that new standard, which will be jointly released by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation. On Wednesday, the Senate confirmed the new Transportation Secretary, Pete Buttigieg. In his confirmation hearing, Mr. Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., and a 2020 presidential contender, vowed to make tackling climate change a guiding principal of his tenure — a first for a transportation secretary.

And he will be aided by a new top official who helped broker the California deal with the five automakers: Steven Cliff, formerly the deputy executive officer with the California Air Resources Board, has been appointed by Mr. Biden to lead the Transportation Department’s National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration, the agency that will oversee the rewrite of the new auto fuel economy standards.

“He’s probably the most knowledgeable person anywhere on the planet about how these auto companies align on this and how we push on this,” Mr. Blumenfeld said.

Climate Fwd: What on earth is going on? Get the latest news about climate change, plus tips on how you can help.

Ms. McCarthy is expected to meet this week with the heads of several major auto companies and representatives from the United Auto Workers and other unions as she begins to sketch out the details of the new rules.

Though the California deal sets a standard of 51 miles per gallon for model year 2026, the coming Biden rule will likely take a year or more to complete. So its first targets will be later, 2028 or 2029. California and environmental groups are likely to push for standards that are even more aggressive to help meet the goal of ending sales of gasoline- and diesel-powered cars by 2035.

Crafting such rules could be a lengthy and complex process, but several people close to the administration say they expect that the E.P.A. and Transportation Department to publish a “notice of proposed rule making” — essentially, a document that launches the one-to-two-year legal process of drafting and implementing such rules — by March.