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California braces for 'fight of a lifetime' as Trump moves to revoke mpg waiver

Keith Laing
The Detroit News

Washington — The Trump administration will move to revoke part of California's right to set its own gas mileage rules for cars, and the Golden State is gearing up for a legal fight that is likely to head to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"The Trump Administration is revoking California’s Federal Waiver on emissions in order to produce far less expensive cars for the consumer, while at the same time making the cars substantially SAFER," President Donald Trump tweeted Wednesday. 

In a series of tweets, the president pre-empted an official announcement scheduled Thursday morning.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected to say Thursday that it will revoke the Clean Air Act waiver that has been used for years by California to set its own emission standards. That would undo California's Advanced Clean Car Rule, which calls for automakers to reduce pollution from new cars from 2012 model year levels by 40% by 2025. 

A group of 30 U.S. senators is urging GM, Fiat Chrysler and a dozen other automakers to rebuke the Trump administration's effort to roll back gas mileage standards and join an agreement on fuel economy rules reached between California and four car manufacturers, including Ford.

The agency announced Wednesday afternoon that EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao will make a "major policy announcement" on Thursday morning at the EPA's headquarters in Washington. 

Trump claimed the move will mean more jobs.

"This will lead to more production because of this pricing and safety advantage, and also due to the fact that older, highly polluting cars, will be replaced by new, extremely environmentally friendly cars," the president tweeted. "There will be very little difference in emissions between the California Standard and the new U.S. Standard, but the cars will be far safer and much less expensive. Many more cars will be produced under the new and uniform standard, meaning significantly more JOBS, JOBS, JOBS! Automakers should seize this opportunity because without this alternative to California, you will be out of business." 

California has already sued over the Trump administration's proposed rollback of stringent fuel economy rules that were adopted by the Obama administration in 2012, and the state's Democratic leaders have signaled they also intended to go to court to protect their right to set their own mpg rules. 

"Our message to those who claim to support states’ right: Don’t trample on ours,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a Democrat, said in a press conference shortly after the president's comments. 

“For us, this is about survival," Becerra continued. "Our communities are screaming for help to address the climate crisis...We’re prepared to lead. We’re prepared to fight. We’ll do what we must.”

"I think there's no question that we will be in court as soon as we have a document out there, maybe even ahead of that," Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, added. "This is the fight of a lifetime for us. We have to win this, and I believe we will." 

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, also a Democrat, predicted California will emerge victorious in the mpg fight after lengthy court battle. 

"I'm confident we'll prevail," Newsom said. "It'll take years and years and years, more uncertainty, but California will prevail, because we're leaders in this space."

There is little evidence to back up Trump's claim that rolling back the Obama-era mileage rules would make cars cheaper, and consumer groups say motorists could save more than that in reduced fuel costs and vehicle maintenance if current rules are left in place.

Car prices indeed have climbed since 2012, when Barack Obama's White House finalized rules that would have required automakers to achieve fleetwide averages of more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025. But those increases can be attributed largely to the inclusion of new technologies such as infotainment systems and safety features — and because buyers are opting for bigger, more luxurious cars and trucks.

The average price of a new car in 2012 was $31,616, according to Kelley Blue Book. In 2017, when the mpg rules began taking effect, the average new car price was $35,300. Today, it is $37,307. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated in 2018 that keeping the Obama-era mileage rules in place would add $2,340 to the cost of owning a new car, based on estimated savings of $1,850 in average costs related to technologies that would be required to meet higher mpg rules and $490 in savings on ownership costs for financing, insurance and taxes. The figures are a measure of ownership costs and not sticker price. 

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The Trump administration and California have battled over gas mileage rules since the earliest days of Trump's presidency. 

The Trump administration announced last year its intention to ease stringent gas-mileage rules that would have required fleets averaging nearly 55 miles per gallon by 2025. The administration proposed a freeze in the mandate after 2020, touching off a fierce battle with California, which helped craft the Obama-era rules.

The two sides attempted to negotiate a potential agreement, but the White House said in February it was pulling out of the talks and moving forward with its proposed freeze. 

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 unless the Trump administration and California can come to an agreement. Congress gave California the right to set its own standards

California has vowed to fight any attempt to revoke its right to set its own mileage rules in court. The state has reached an agreement with Ford Motor Co. and three other automakers to voluntarily increase the average fuel economy of their fleets from 2021 levels by 3.7% per year, reaching an average of nearly 50 mpg by 2026. The U.S. Department of Justice has launched an antitrust investigation into that agreement.

General Motors Co., Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and other automakers have faced pressure from Democratic lawmakers to join the voluntarily agreement with California. 

Democratic lawmakers have decried both the effort to roll back the Obama-era mpg rules and take California's right to set its own gas mileage rules. 

“President Trump’s actions take us in the wrong direction for every key metric for this industry, accomplish absolutely nothing, and cause serious and detrimental harm to an industry that needs his support," U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, said in a statement. 

“Frankly, I’ve always said we need one national fuel economy program – one set of standards well into the future that increase year over year – that deliver on the twin goals of giving the industry certainty while reducing greenhouse gas emissions," Dingell continued. "Both domestic and foreign manufactures explicitly asked the president to not revoke the waiver. The industry needs certainty, not court cases that will last for years.”

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., added: "President Trump and the EPA have no authority to revoke California’s right to enact strong, effective auto pollution standards designed to protect the health of our communities and save hard-working families money. 

"This outrageous, partisan assault is the latest example of the Trump Administration’s toxic special interest agenda, which is destroying critical, lifesaving environmental protections across the country and putting billions of dollars into the pockets of big donors and dirty energy polluters," Pelosi said

Environmentalists have called the effort to revoke California's emissions waiver as an attack on the environment from a hostile administration. 

"President Trump’s attack on California and other states threatens to make America polluted again," Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign, which advocates for solutions to global warming-related issues, said. "It rejects cleaner, less-polluting vehicles in favor of pollution-spewing Trump-mobiles for urban cowboys hauling lattes home from Starbucks. Trump has married his administration-wide hostility to the environment to his personal vendetta against California."

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing