White House Twists Automakers’ Arms in Crusade Against California Carbon Controls
Arm-twisting automakers into an assault on tailpipe emission standards, and taking regulatory action against companies that won’t go along, has emerged as one of the latest strategies in the Trump administration’s continuing push to roll back Obama-era pollution controls while punishing California for trying to defend them.
The White House moved in September to strip the state of its hard-fought right to set tougher pollution control standards for cars and light trucks, relying on the argument that the 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act enshrines federal authority to set fuel economy standards. “The move sets up another legal clash between the federal government and the nation’s most populous state, which for decades under administrations of both parties exercised authority to put in place more stringent fuel economy standards,” the Washington Post reported at the time. “Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have vowed to adopt California’s standards if they diverge from the federal government’s, as have several major automakers.”
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But after Ford, Honda, Volkswagen, and BMW publicly aligned themselves with California, and with time growing short to find parties willing to support the Trump crusade, top Trump policy aide Andrew Olmen picked up the phone, the New York Times writes. A few days later, Toyota, GM, and Fiat Chrysler, along with at least nine others, “filed a legal intervention siding with the White House’s effort to revoke the right of California and other states to enact tougher emissions rules than those set by the federal government.”
While “people with knowledge of Olmem’s calls to the auto companies said he did not make explicit threats for lack of support,” the Times adds, there has been much behind-the-scenes concern about “an administration that has shown a willingness to reward or retaliate” as it sees fit.
“Foreign automakers, in particular, have worried that Mr. Trump might consider tariffs on imported cars or car parts, or even label foreign car sales a national security issue, which could further complicate imports.”
Automakers would also have been thinking about what the Times editorial board called a “crude parody of anti-trust enforcement” against the four automakers that had come out on California’s side. That probe was launched by the U.S. Justice Department’s just days after California filed suit against the federal action.
Now “car companies are worried that California could make it difficult for them to sell in the state or could find other ways to punish them,” the Washington Post notes. At the federal level, as well, siding with the administration “represents a calculated political risk, sowing doubt about the industry’s climate commitments and potentially backfiring if Democrats take back the White House in 2020.”
To some degree, the backlash is hitting the Trump-friendly companies as a group, with one irate Twitter user responding: “GM to the planet: Drop dead.” But it is Toyota that is forecast to suffer most, and most immediately, from its decision to turn its back on the California standard, the Times writes. “You are on the wrong side of history, Toyota,” wrote long-time Prius owner Costanza Rampini, an assistant professor of environmental studies at San José State University, who vowed to trade in her Toyota for a Ford as soon as she could.
Marketing experts say that “while both GM and Fiat Chrysler have made large investments to develop hybrid and electric cars, their environmental bona fides aren’t as prominent as Toyota’s,” the Times states, so they’re less likely to feel the heat of consumer wrath.
The Trump White House also filed a lawsuit October 23 in response to California’s 2013 carbon cap-and-trade agreement with Quebec, in a case that “reeks of bad faith,” Bloomberg writes.
“To hear the Justice Department tell it, six years ago California announced it was going to violate the Constitution—and nobody noticed until now,” the news agency states. Condemning the White House action as nothing more than “a pretext to stop states from fighting climate change,” Bloomberg adds that “the carbon market it created has worked as intended, and other countries see it as a model”.
Trump officials say the transboundary carbon market violates a U.S. constitutional prohibition against states engaging in “independent foreign policy”. But “few noticed this constitutional atrocity back in 2013,” Bloomberg snarks, and “it’s no surprise it has burst into view now—as the Trump administration lodges attack after attack after attack on California, many plainly dubious, designed to keep it from setting environmental standards stricter than Washington’s.”
While noting that a Trump win would find U.S. states and Canadian provinces continuing “to run their carbon markets independently—a less efficient set-up that would raise costs for businesses and consumers,” Bloomberg is more concerned that the lawsuit will “forestall other efforts by cities and states to cooperate in fighting climate change” when those efforts are “desperately needed”.