Carmakers To White House: Work With California On Rules For Greenhouse Gases

Jun 6, 2019

Updated at 9:13 p.m. ET

Seventeen of the world's largest automakers have asked the White House and the state of California to restart talks and come up with one set of greenhouse gas standards for cars.

The Trump administration has been pushing to roll back regulations, while California has been holding tight to its tougher rules for auto emissions. The carmakers, meanwhile, call for "common sense compromise."

The companies — including Ford, General Motors, Toyota, Honda and Volkswagen — sent a letter to the Trump administration emphasizing that auto industry jobs are at stake.

Meanwhile, they sent a letter to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, arguing that a single nationwide standard would reduce emissions more effectively than a divided one.

The dispute between the Trump administration and California has been simmering for more than two years.

During the Obama administration, regulators tightened federal emissions standards. The standards would get stricter over time, requiring automakers to achieve an average fuel efficiency of at least 54.5 miles per gallon across their fleet of cars by 2025

But when President Trump took office, he froze the new rules at current rates, requiring carmakers to hit a fleet average of 37 mpg as part of a broader plan to roll back regulation on industrial companies.

At the same time, California has been committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And unique among the states, it has the power to set its own standards for vehicle emissions — an authority it has used to push for stricter environmental regulations.

The Trump administration has announced its intention to not only relax the nationwide rules, but to block California from enforcing its stricter standards. California has gone to court to defend its laws.

In their letters, the carmakers urge both sides to find a middle ground.

The auto industry has long expressed a preference for a single nationwide policy on fuel economy. The companies warn that the feud between the White House and California could trigger lengthy legal battles that would hurt the auto industry — and wind up making cars more expensive.

"We strongly believe the best path to preserve good auto jobs and keep new vehicles affordable for more Americans is a final rule supported by all parties—including California," the carmakers' letter to the White House stated.

But they also urged California to accept regulations less stringent than the Obama-era policies.

"We know that reaching an agreement has been challenging, but the stakes are too high and the benefits too important to accept the status quo," the companies told California's governor.

The Trump administration appears to be sticking to its plan.

White House spokesperson Judd Deere said California "failed to put forward a productive alternative, and we are moving forward to finalize a rule with the goal of promoting safer, cleaner, and more affordable vehicles."

And California isn't backing down, either.

"This rule change is politically motivated and part of a larger push to reward oil companies and hurt our nation's efforts to fight climate change," Newsom said in a statement. "California will continue to lead the coalition to block these rule changes from taking effect."

Fiat Chrysler — which produces Jeep and Ram vehicles, among other brands — did not sign the carmaker letters.

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Ford, GM and 15 other automakers have written to President Trump calling on him and the state of California to reopen talks about pollution standards. Such talks broke down months ago. The carmakers say they are willing to cut emissions from cars over time, which would be good for business and the environment. All right, well, to dig in on this dispute, we have NPR's Camila Domonoske in the studio. Hi, Camila.


KELLY: What exactly is this dispute?

DOMONOSKE: So the core dispute here has been brewing for quite a while. There are these Obama-era limits on fuel economy, requirements for fuel economy and limits on emissions from vehicles that are designed to ramp up over time, to get increasingly more strict.


DOMONOSKE: And the current White House would like to stop that, make them frozen at one level instead of getting more strict over time, part of a broader pattern of rolling back Obama-era policies designed to fight climate change.

KELLY: Right.

DOMONOSKE: Meanwhile, California - very committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and it's in a special situation where it has the right to set its own standards for vehicle emissions, and other states can follow suit. California is the only state that gets to set its own policies like that, and it's used that power to push for stricter environmental regulations. So the Trump administration would also like to take that power away from California. And it's a - it's been a big fight for a while.

KELLY: An ongoing fight which now might be reopened, it sounds like, but what exactly are the automakers saying...


KELLY: ...In terms of where they want this to go?

DOMONOSKE: So these automakers - first of all, they definitely want a single standard. They've never liked having one policy for the federal government and another for California and states that follow suit.

KELLY: They don't want to have to make different cars for different markets, presumably.


KELLY: Yeah.

DOMONOSKE: But above all, what they want is certainty. If the Trump administration is fighting California over this, it means a legal battle - costly, drawn-out litigation that could be untenable for the carmakers, they say. So they sent letters to both parties today saying, basically, please come back to the table, and come to some sort of compromise somewhere in between these increasingly strict Obama-era policies and the Trump administration's preferred policy.

KELLY: You said they sent letters to both parties, meaning President Trump and California.

DOMONOSKE: And the governor of California.

KELLY: Same letter?

DOMONOSKE: Different letters. It's actually kind of striking. They have the same core appeal, right? They say, please come to a compromise; that would be better for everybody. But it's framed really differently. The letter to President Trump emphasizes keeping jobs in America and keeping car prices down, which is interesting because one of the things that the White House has said is that having these stricter fuel economy requirements will drive car prices up. And the carmakers are saying, basically, no, that's not how we see it.

But meanwhile, in the letter to California, instead of emphasizing jobs and consumer prices, the carmakers really hit the climate change angle and say having one policy across the country will reduce greenhouse gas emissions more than having a split policy would.

KELLY: And any response yet from the White House?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. A White House spokesman said that California hadn't come up with a, quote, "productive alternative," end quote, to the White House plan, basically saying that the White House doesn't plan on returning to the negotiating table and will be moving forward with its policy.

KELLY: Sounds like this dispute may rattle on for a bit longer. NPR's Camila Domonoske, thanks for your reporting.

DOMONOSKE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.