White House breaks off talks with Calif.

Source: Maxine Joselow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, February 22, 2019

The White House is ending negotiations with California over its rollback of Obama-era clean car rules.

Officials from the White House, Department of Transportation and EPA will “discontinue discussions with the California Air Resources Board (CARB) regarding the proposed Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule,” the White House said in a statement today.

“Despite the Administration’s best efforts to reach a common-sense solution, it is time to acknowledge that CARB has failed to put forward a productive alternative since the SAFE Vehicles Rule was proposed,” the White House said. “Accordingly, the Administration is moving forward to finalize a rule later this year with the goal of promoting safer, cleaner and more affordable vehicles.”

The move indicates the Trump administration is pressing ahead with its rollback of the car rules ahead of a self-imposed March deadline. The rollback represents one of its most aggressive efforts to dismantle President Obama’s climate legacy.

During the Obama administration, automakers reached an agreement with the federal government to gradually increase the average miles-per-gallon requirements for cars to 54.5 mpg by 2025.

But under President Trump, EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last year proposed halting that progress by freezing fuel economy requirements at 2020 levels through 2026.

Just as consequentially, the two agencies also proposed rescinding California’s Clean Air Act waiver for greenhouse gases. The waiver gives the state legal authority to set tougher tailpipe pollution rules than the federal government.

The Trump administration is seeking to finalize the rollback in the coming month. Once finalized, the proposal is certain to attract a host of legal challenges from environmental groups, public health organizations, California and the 13 other states that have adopted tougher tailpipe pollution benchmarks.

The administration’s counterpart in the negotiations is CARB, which is helmed by the powerful environmental regulator Mary Nichols (Greenwire, Aug. 17, 2018).

Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler was in San Francisco earlier this month to meet with Nichols. He was tight-lipped about the details of the meeting, though the talks had appeared to deteriorate for months (E&E News PM, Feb. 4).

And in a strange turn of events, CARB was apparently not given advance notice of the Trump administration’s intent to break off the talks.

“We got word the White House might be putting something out, but we still haven’t heard from the White House,” a CARB spokesman told E&E News yesterday. “It was something about ending negotiations, which is ironic since from our point of view there have never been any negotiations.”

The spokesman joked that this week was “Let’s Punch California This Week.” He was referring to Trump’s tweets attacking the state’s troubled high-speed rail project (Climatewire, Feb. 20).

Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said the move could factor into Andrew Wheeler’s confirmation battle for EPA administrator.

“After Mr. Wheeler’s emphatic insistence at his confirmation hearing that ‘nobody wants a 50-state deal more than I do,’ the end of these talks send a clear message that, sadly, Mr. Wheeler has been unable to keep his word,” Carper said in a statement.

He added, “This administration’s negotiations with the State of California over fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions standards have been superficial and scant at best, or duplicitous and designed to fail at worst. While I am deeply disappointed by today’s confirmation by the administration that these negotiations are over, it’s difficult for me to understand how that is the case if discussions never seriously began in the first place.”

Carper met late last year with Deputy Secretary of Transportation Jeffrey Rosen, one of the key architects of the car rules rollback and Trump’s nominee for deputy attorney general (E&E Daily, Dec. 6, 2018).

Shortly after that meeting, the Democrat said he heard the Trump administration planned to slightly retreat from the aggressive rollback. Rather than freezing fuel economy requirements at 2020 levels through 2026, he said, the administration planned to slightly increase the requirements by 0.5 percent annually (Greenwire, Jan. 16).

It remains to be seen whether the administration will hew closely to its original proposal. A Carper aide said the lawmaker has continued to hear about the 0.5 percent annual increase from more than one source with knowledge of the matter.

Some automakers were mum on the announcement. But Joe Hinrichs, president of global operations at Ford Motor Co., denounced the move as creating regulatory uncertainty for the industry.

“We’re disappointed in reports that EPA, NHTSA and the California Air Resources Board have not been able to reach an agreement on future fuel economy standards, and will continue to encourage all parties to work together,” Hinrichs said in a statement.

“A coordinated program with every stakeholder is in the best interest of Ford’s customers, and is the best path forward to achieve reductions in carbon dioxide emissions and support critical investments in new technologies,” he said. “The auto industry needs regulatory certainty, not protracted litigation.”

Environmentalists, for their part, vowed to press ahead with lawsuits challenging the rollback. Green groups have already filed an initial complaint over former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s conclusion last year that the Obama-era standards were inappropriate and should be revised — the opening salvo in what’s sure to become a lengthy legal battle.

“The administration is doubling down on its reckless and deeply unpopular plan to roll back the clean car standards,” Martha Roberts, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement yesterday.

“EDF will keep fighting, in the court of public opinion and the court of law, to protect our clean car standards for all Americans,” Roberts said.

Jeff Alson, a former staffer in EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality, said he doubts the Trump administration would prevail in court. He noted that researchers have accused the administration of manipulating their findings to justify the rollback — something likely to draw legal scrutiny (Climatewire, Dec. 8, 2018).

“It sounds like they’re going to roll the dice on a court case,” Alson said. “I think there’s very little chance they could win. The record is compelling that they cooked the books and made stuff up.”

He added: “So, game on.”