White House pulls out of Calif. talks on mileage rules

Keith Laing
The Detroit News
The Trump administration says it has broken off talks with California in a dispute over mileage standards, moving the two closer to a possible court battle that threatens to roil the auto industry.

Washington – The Trump administration pulled out of talks with California about new rules for gas mileage that would cover model years 2021-2025 on Thursday, setting up a likely legal fight that will leave carmakers in limbo about the rules that will govern their industry for the next half-decade. 

The White House said Thursday in a joint statement with the U.S. Department of Transportation and Environmental Protection Agency that the Trump administration has decided to discontinue discussions with the California Air Resources Board.

The White House said CARB "has failed to put forward a productive alternative."

"Accordingly," it said, "the administration is moving forward to finalize a rule later this year with the goal of promoting safer, cleaner, and more affordable vehicles." 

The announcement is likely to trigger a lengthy legal battle as the Trump administration moves forward with an effort to rollback stringent mileage rules enacted by the Obama administration, depriving automakers of a desired quick settlement and a national set of rules.

The Trump administration announced last year its intention to ease stringent gas-mileage rules that would have required fleets averaging more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025. The administration proposed a freeze in the mandate after 2020, when their lineups must average 39 mpg. 

Automakers cheered the decision to reopen the so called mid-term review they were promised when the Obama-era gas mileage rules were agreed to in 2011. But they hoped the Trump administration would quickly reach an agreement with California on a new set of rules to prevent a lengthy legal battle that would leave the mpg requirements for the next half-decade in limbo. 

“Automakers support year-over-year improvements in fuel economy that align with the marketplace," the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which lobbies for U.S. automakers in Washington, said in a statement released after the White House announcement.

"We always knew achieving one national program would be challenging," the statement continued.  "But one national program is worth striving for because it is the best way to maximize fuel economy and carbon reductions while preserving vehicle affordability and employment.”

The Trump administration has floated the idea of moving revoke a longstanding waiver allowing California and other states to set their own stricter auto emissions standards. Thirteen states and Washington, D.C., have adopted California’s mileage rules, meaning automakers could be left with one set of rules for a quarter of the country and another set for the remaining states. 

Revoking California's waiver, which is ensconsed in the Clean Air Act, would require a act of Congress that is unlikely with the U.S. House under the control of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). 

California has already filed a lawsuit over the Trump administration's efforts to modify the Obama-era gas mileage rules, and the state remained defiant after the White House pulled out of the emission talks on Thursday.  

"Another targeted attack on CA by the Trump administration," California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, tweeted Thursday afternoon. "Clean air should be the most basic of human rights. This is a reckless political stunt that puts the health of MILLIONS of kids, families, and communities across America at risk." 

The breakdown in negotiations occurred as the Trump administration moved to rescind money for high-speed rail that was offered during the Obama administration. California is suing over the president’s national emergency declaration for the border.

The strained relationship likely means the mileage rules will hung up in court for a long time.

Democrats have urged the Trump administration to go back to the table to craft a deal with California on mileage rules. 

"Repeatedly, I have urged this administration to strike a deal with the State of California and seize the win-win opportunity to keep the American auto industry globally competitive and create more good paying jobs here at home while protecting our environment," Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., who is top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said.

“Litigation is not the best option here," he continued. "It wastes time, money, creates uncertainty for American automakers and harms the environment." 

Environmentalists decried the Trump administration's decision to walk away from negotiating with California on new mileage rules.  

“The Art of Trump’s Deal seems to be to scrap a widely-supported, agreed-upon standard, pretend to negotiate in good faith, if at all, and then fail," Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement.  "This masquerade of ‘negotiations’ would not have been necessary if the Trump administration was not set on going against the will of the people to roll back progress on our nation’s strongest climate standards to date."

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing