Carmakers see 'Green New Deal' as a non-starter

Keith Laing
The Detroit News
A freeze in the mileage standards would mean carmakers would only have to meet a fleet-wide average of 33.4 miles per gallon in real-world driving for the next half-decade.

Washington — Automakers are skeptical about the viability of a Green New Deal pushed by emboldened Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives, including two freshman Michigan lawmakers,  calling for net-zero global emissions by 2050.

They say the focus should instead be on the effort to convince President Donald Trump’s administration to reach a deal with California on Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) rules that would ensure continued annual reductions in pollution from cars.

The White House has framed the choice for automakers as a choice between the president's proposal to freeze the mileage standards at 2020 levels until at least 2026 and California's embrace of the Obama administration's previous CAFE rules, which would have required automakers to achieve a fleetwide average of about 43 miles per gallon in real-world driving by 2025.

A freeze in the mileage standards would mean carmakers, who have said the Obama-era rules are too stringent, would only have to meet a fleet-wide average of 33.4 miles per gallon in real-world driving for the next half-decade. But carmakers know their customers expect annual increases in fuel economy, even as they express a clear preference for larger SUVs and pickup trucks.

Automakers also know they have to keep up with countries in Europe and China that are moving more aggressively than the U.S. toward vehicle electrification.

U.S. Reps. Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township, and Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, are two of 90 Democrats in the U.S. House who have co-sponsored the Green New Deal resolution. They say they support the mileage rules put in place by the Obama administration, even after signing onto a resolution that calls for net-zero emissions by 2050. 

Carmakers are not worried about the possibility of a Green New Deal passing Congress any time soon, said Gloria Bergquist, spokesperson for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents car manufacturers in Washington.

"We have not seen (the Green New Deal) get traction, and the administration is already finalizing its rule for release soon," she said. 

The U.S. Senate is expected to take a vote on the Green New Deal proposal before the end of month. The vote is being scheduled at the request of Republican leaders who see an opportunity to gain a political advantage by forcing Democratic senators up for re-election in 2020 — like U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township — to take a position on the environmental proposal.

Republican leaders in the U.S. House have also called for the Democratically controlled chamber to hold hearings on the Green New Deal in a bid to put on the spot moderate members of the party who represent swing districts.

Bergquist said automakers are intently focused on pushing the Trump administration and California to re-open negotiations on a national set of gas-mileage rules that would provide certainty for the next half-decade. 

She said a recent EPA report which showed the U.S. auto industry achieved a record average of 24.9 miles-per-gallon in the 2017 model year — but still fell short of the Obama-era marks — shows the need for compromise on the mileage rules.  

"The facts about consumer purchases of our highly energy-efficient new vehicles are clear, yet people view them through their goals and aspirations," Bergquist said. "This is challenging because the compliance of automakers is based on consumer sales. That is a hard, solid, incontrovertible fact." 

Democratic lawmakers who support the proposed Green New Deal say they support the mileage rules that were put in place by the Obama administration, even after endorsing a much more ambitious plan. 

"What the Green New Deal is doing is it's showing the immense amount of energy and passion and science and organizing that's going on around the need to move faster toward tackling our issues with climate change," Levin said in an interview with The Detroit News. 

"Society is changing direction," Levin continued. "The Trump administration has put us in reverse... We're not going to go backwards. My kids won't stand for it." 

Tlaib added in a statement: "President Trump’s efforts to undermine the Obama Administration’s fuel efficiency rules are disappointing much like the rest of his environmental policy. When the federal government fails to protect our health and environment, it’s great that states like California can adopt tougher regulations, but it is also far past time we focus our attention on developing a national zero-emission environmental and manufacturing policy.”

The mileage rules for model years 2021 to 2025 that are under review by the Trump administration are at the center of a high-profile fight with California, which has had the right to set its own emissions standards under the Clean Air Act since 1963. The Trump administration has proposed freezing CAFE standards from the 2021 to 2025 model years at 2020 levels. 

California has sued over the Trump administration's effort to roll back the rules. The White House recently broke off negotiations with leaders in the state about a potential compromise.

Thirteen states and Washington, D.C., have adopted California’s more-stringent requirements, and nine states have replicated the state's zero-emission vehicle program, which calls for the state to have 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles by 2025.  Automakers have clamored for a deal between Washington and California that would create one national standard.

Levin said he is sympathetic to the argument from carmakers about the need for certainty, but he pointed out that there was certainty provided by the 2012 deal between the Obama administration and automakers.  

"Automakers negotiated with the Obama administration on these standards," he said. "It's not as if Obama simply imposed them. We did have a national standard. It's Trump who is trying to hurt that." 

Since pulling out of talks with California about new rules for gas mileage in February, the White House has put pressure on automakers to pick a side between the president and his biggest adversaries on environmental issues in California. 

In a call first reported by Bloomberg, a White House official told automakers they had a choice: side with California or side with the White House.

Supporters of the Green New Deal are skeptical about arguments from automakers that the Obama-era rules are too stringent to be met. 

"Of course they can achieve these fuel standards," Levin said. "You're telling me Ford, GM and Chrysler can't meet these standards? It's nonsense."

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing