Quietly, Trump Officials and California Seek a Deal on Car Emissions

Source: By Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times • Posted: Monday, April 9, 2018

The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. California has vowed to stick to its own stricter auto emissions standards even if the Trump administration relaxes federal rules. David Madison/Getty Images

Officials from the Trump administration and the State of California, who have been negotiating behind the scenes on car emissions standards, are expected to reopen talks that could preserve rules targeted by the Environmental Protection Agency for elimination, according to people briefed on the talks.

Scott Pruitt, the E.P.A. administrator, announced this week that his agency would start the process of rolling back the federal standards, which are aimed at cutting tailpipe emissions of carbon dioxide, a major contributor to global warming. He also demanded that California, which has vowed to stick to its own stricter standards, fall in line and follow Washington’s lead.

That announcement raised the specter of a messy legal battle between the Trump administration and California, which has the legal authority to write its own air pollution rules and has threatened to sue to protect that authority.

Though California’s authority is considered to be on solid legal footing, a protracted legal fight would raise the prospect of uncertainty and a domestic auto market split between the states that follow stricter emissions rules — California and 12 other coastal states that adhere to its standards — and the ones that would allow for dirtier cars.

Officials and former officials with direct knowledge of the talks declined to be identified for this article, citing the sensitivity of ongoing negotiations. An E.P.A. spokeswoman, Liz Bowman, confirmed that the agency had “an ongoing dialogue with California” on emissions standards but declined to discuss details. Stanley Young, a spokesman for the California Air Resources Board, the state’s clean air regulator, declined to disclose the state of negotiations.

But privately, officials from the Trump administration and California, along with representatives of major automakers, are searching for a compromise that could save a uniform set of standards for the entire country, according to a half-dozen peoplebriefed on recent communications among the parties. One person close to the Trump administration said he considered communications with California as “active and ongoing.”

Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency chief, in Washington on Tuesday. He announced a plan to undo emissions standards put in place under President Barack Obama.Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

A proposal that remains on the table would keep the original fuel economy standards — put in place under President Barack Obama — through 2025, but allow automakers to exploit more generous loopholes to meet those standards, those people said. In exchange, the Trump administration would commit to honoring California’s authority to set stricter standards through 2030, which could set the tone for federal standards for those five additional years.

But other proposals are possible, especially as the E.P.A., White House and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration start to better coordinate their strategies, something they have so far had trouble doing, according to people close to the negotiations.

People briefed on the matter said officials at the California Air Resources Board were amenable to the 2030 compromise, even as they coordinated with the state’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, who was preparing a legal challenge in case the talks collapsed.

Also amenable to compromise are some of the automakers, who favor a more moderate approach to a regulatory rollback than the one favored by Mr. Pruitt. But “automakers are in different positions” on how to proceed, said one person close to their thinking, with some companies more focused on rolling back the standards through 2025, and others more eager to have a broader discussion on a compromise with California and standards through 2030.

A person close to the Trump administration said White House officials were also pushing the E.P.A. toward a compromise with California. The White House, this person said, is more in tune with concerns from some automakers who feel that the rollbacks they lobbied for have triggered an overzealous response from the E.P.A., bringing the federal government to the brink of a battle with California that could throw the entire auto market into disarray.

Mr. Pruitt has been a wild card, eager to score a clear victory in dismantling environmental regulations. In one sign of his zeal — and his apparent disconnect with the position of the auto industry — he has openly described the planned rewriting of auto emissions standards as a “rollback,” much to the chagrin of auto lobbyists who have long said that formulation does not accurately describe the changes they are seeking.

Big obstacles remain to reaching a compromise. California and E.P.A. officials have met at least three times in the last few months to discuss auto emissions regulations. The latest round of talks took place in California last week between Mary D. Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, and William Wehrum, the E.P.A.’s senior clean air adviser.

Mary D. Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, is negotiating with the E.P.A.Melissa Lyttle for The New York Times

A person close to the California negotiators characterized the meeting as “highly non-substantive,” even as he said a compromise remained possible when talks resumed. But a person close to the administration had a more positive take, calling the talks “productive.”

The stakes are high. Introduced in 2012, the federal rules would require automakers to nearly double the average fuel economy of new cars and trucks to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. If fully implemented, they would cut oil consumption by about 12 billion barrels over the lifetime of all the cars affected by the regulations and reduce carbon dioxide pollution by about six billion tons, according to the E.P.A.’s projections.

“Clearly, the Trump administration has gained some political capital by looking really tough on this and proposing a reversal of the Obama-era standards,” said Barry Rabe, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan. “But the Trump administration has also gotten out beyond what the auto industry has wanted throughout, which is substantial flexibility in meeting these standards.”

“They can now claim to have stood up to California, but they also realize they need to come back to the negotiating table,” Mr. Rabe said. “It’s clear legal and political combat with California would open up enormous uncertainty. So it sounds like a bit of dialing back.”

Hiroko Tabuchi is a climate reporter. She joined The Times in 2008, and was part of the team awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting. She previously wrote about Japanese economics, business and technology from Tokyo. @HirokoTabuchiFacebook

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A15 of the New York edition with the headline: Quietly, White House And California Seek Deal on Car Emissions. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe