California Battles Trump on Stalled Fuel Efficiency Rules

As turmoil grows, state considers “fees, taxes, and bans on certain types of vehicles.”

Frustrated by Washington, the State of California may be considering a ban on vehicles with internal combustion engines.

Or maybe not.

The question of whether it is or isn’t came to a head last week, after the state’s chief air quality regulator balked at mentioning the ban in a speech, even though it was apparently called for in her draft remarks obtained by Bloomberg news.

Instead of floating the possibility of a specific ban, Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board (CARB), listed “extreme” air pollution countermeasures, including “fees, taxes and bans on certain types of vehicles.” She also added that “these are not things that most of us think are the right way to go.”

Nichols did not, however, specifically call for a ban on gas-burning vehicles, even though it was scripted into her “draft remarks,” the agency told Design News.

Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board, said that extreme measures are not the way “that most of most of us think are the right way to go.” (Image source: CARB)

Still, the lingering possibility of such a comment added to the turmoil that now surrounds the Trump Administration’s effort to roll back the 2012 goals set forth by the Obama White House. California regulators are concerned, not only that the Trump plan would harm the state’s air quality, but that it would eliminate the legal waiver that allows states like California to set their own more stringent standards.

Automakers, meanwhile, are increasingly concerned that the Trump proposal, which has reached no resolution, is hindering their ability to lay plans for the future.

“Anything that constrains their markets is going to stress the automakers,” Brett Smith of the Center for Automotive Research told Design News. “They can’t make predictions for 2030; they don’t know what technologies will be viable. And equally important, they don’t know what technologies customers will want.”

Court Battle Looming?

California is critically important to all auto manufacturers that sell in the US because its regulations determine how many hybrids and electric vehicles they need to build and sell. Moreover, California leads an 18-state coalition that represents 140 million people, or about 40% of the US car market. The coalition wants the national programs created by the Obama Administration to remain intact. Those programs called for a set of standards for greenhouse gas emissions and fuel efficiency – most notably a 54.5-mpg corporate average for every automaker by 2025.

Trump’s White House wants to slow that down, freezing fuel economy goals at 37 mpg in 2021. But it has failed to reach a conclusion in its effort.

“If nothing happens, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration won’t have a 2021 fuel economy standard,” Smith said. “Theoretically, they’ve already passed the statutory time for setting that standard. And that alone stresses the auto industry.”

The stress, however, may even be greater for Californians. That state sees its air quality -- believed to be the worst in the country -- as a major threat to public health. And it faces economic penalties, including loss of federal road improvement funds, if it fails to clean up its dirty air.

To combat those problems, California wants to set its own, more stringent fuel economy standards. But if the Trump Administration is successful in eliminating the legal waiver that allows California to do that, that avenue would be lost.

Last year, California fought back by filing suit against the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), contending that the EPA acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” in attempting to roll back the earlier regulations. “You can’t just, like some tinhorn dictator, say that I’m tearing up a rule that was built on two years of building up evidence,” former-governor Jerry Brown said at the time.

Still, the legal battle, which could end at the US Supreme Court, stands as an unknown for California. “In the last two or three years, it has become a more conservative (Supreme) Court,” Smith said. “And that worries California.”

Mary Nichols’ comments last week may be an effort by California to take the offensive in the ongoing battle, Smith said. “Speeches like this indicate that they are deeply concerned, and that they feel they have to take a stand,” he told us.

A spokesman for CARB said Nichols’ speech wasn’t meant as a threat. “The point of the meeting was to get the word out to Californians on what’s at stake with the Trump plan,” wrote David Clegern of CARB in an e-mail to Design News.

Either way, it’s a sign that the concern over the matter is growing, and that everyone involved wants resolution, Smith said. “No one knows what’s going to happen,” he told us. “We’re in uncharted waters here.”

Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 35 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and auto.

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