EPA is reaching out to Calif. Can they strike a deal?

Source: Camille von Kaenel, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, May 18, 2018

The Trump administration wants to restart talks with California over fuel efficiency rules, a top EPA official told lawmakers yesterday.

Bill Wehrum, EPA’s air chief, told a panel of House lawmakers in an Energy and Commerce Committee hearing yesterday he was seeking out a meeting with officials from the California Air Resources Board, possibly as soon as this week.

“They’re going to be here this week for meetings, we’re hoping to get together with them while they’re here in town,” said Wehrum.

It’s unclear whether he meant this week or next week. He mentioned Wednesday as an option.

California officials said the White House made an overture yesterday and that the state’s top air regulator, California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols, also planned to meet with auto industry groups that have been active on the issue.

“Mary had accepted an invitation by the Association of Global Automakers and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers weeks ago for a meeting in D.C. on Wednesday,” CARB spokesman Stanley Young said in an email yesterday. “She also received a preliminary inquiry from the White House yesterday about a possible meeting, but nothing has yet been set. We have not heard from Wehrum.”

The outreach effort to the Golden State follows a White House meeting last Friday, where auto CEOs pleaded with President Trump to strike a deal with California in the fight over whether to loosen Obama-era car standards. Automakers want to avoid an all-out war between Trump and California, which would plunge the industry into uncertainty.

The possible meeting comes as a window for a deal is narrowing. EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are readying a joint proposal to send to the White House for review next week, without waiting to incorporate California’s input. A leaked draft plan shows the administration could propose to freeze fuel economy at 2020 levels and argue against California’s authority to set its own rules.

California and 17 allies have already sued EPA over its intention to weaken the rules. They have promised more lawsuits if EPA follows through with a significant rollback or an attack on California’s waiver. That could come as soon as EPA and NHTSA publish a proposal.

If the agencies publish their proposal before having a substantive meeting with California, it could hurt the chances for productive negotiations while drafting a final rule.

Compromise possible?

Finding common ground could be difficult. California officials have called the four meetings they’ve had so far with federal regulators “nonsubstantive,” with no exchange of documents or proposals.

Tom Pyle, the president of the Institute for Energy Research, called good-faith negotiations between the Trump administration and California a “political impossibility.” Last week, he and two other Trump transition leaders urged the president to take California to court.

“It’s been very clear that they’ve positioned themselves as the anti-Trump and the resistance,” Pyle said of California. “For them to sit down and come to a conclusion, a situation where the state validates or endorses the administration on such a high-profile environmental issue, it doesn’t seem logical or a good strategy.

“They’re going in a different direction anyway,” he added.

Mary Nichols, the head of ARB, has extended an olive branch to the administration before. She outlined a compromise in which regulators would agree to give automakers some extra flexibilities and credits to make compliance easier, but keep the top-level Obama-era targets.

She cast the lawsuit as a “precautionary measure” and said she would still consider a deal in a recent press conference. California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) was more fiery, calling it an issue of “life or death.”

The Trump administration has not taken Nichols up on her offer of a compromise yet.

“It is hard for me to see how the administration will come to agreement with California given how far apart they are,” Margo Oge, the former head of EPA’s transportation office under President Obama, said in an email. “But we can always hope!”

‘I’ll speak for myself’

Wehrum hinted at possible distance between himself and Pruitt on California’s role in writing the clean car requirements.

When Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) asked him whether he understood the importance of one national program to the auto industry, Wehrum said: “I’ll speak for myself.

“I understand the importance of that, and what I would say is it’s a priority of my office and I believe a priority of the administration to try and maintain one national standard,” he said. “To the degree press reports are saying that is not a goal, I would say that’s wrong.”

Pruitt has not been involved personally in negotiations with California, not visiting Nichols when traveling to the state. He has said California shouldn’t be the “arbiter” of the issue and that he is reviewing the state’s authority to set its own rules.

Last week, Trump directed Pruitt and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to lead the negotiations.

Reporter Debra Kahn contributed.