It’s a game of three-cushion billiards, being played in Donald Trump’s Washington, Jerry Brown’s Sacramento and in the executive suites of major automakers.
Trump, answering pleas of auto execs, wants to roll back more stringent fuel efficiency standards set up during the final days of the predecessor Obama administration – rules that, at the time, California, other like-minded states and the auto industry jointly supported.
Gov. Brown and his top smog-fighter, Mary Nichols, are insisting California will maintain their tough auto mileage/emission rules regardless of what happens in Washington. But the Trumpies might seek to eliminate the long-standing “waiver” allowing California to set its own standards.
Automakers want relief from the Obama-era rules, saying they can’t meet them while building the cars and trucks American motorists prefer – low-mileage pickup trucks and SUVs. However, they also don’t want to be compelled to make and sell different vehicles in California, and a dozen other states that follow this state’s lead, than they peddle in the rest of the nation.
California, et al, account for about a third of the nation’s auto sales, so the industry wants one national standard – presumably the more profitable one. But California is refusing to budge. So the stage is set for another conflict between a Democratic state and Trump’s national government.
Tuesday, Brown, Nichols and Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced California and 17 other states are suing to block Scott Pruitt, Trump’s EPA administrator, from rolling back auto mileage rules, saying that would violate federal rule-making procedures.
It is the 32nd suit California has filed against the Trump administration on dozens of specific issues, including several other environmental issues. Becerra says the state has prevailed on 11 of the cases so far, while the federal government hasn’t won one.
Nichols said that while nothing official has been released, draft documents reported in the media indicate the Trump administration intends to cancel the state’s waiver that, prior to the Obama-era agreement, had allowed the state to set its own auto-emission standards.
Referring to Pruitt as an “outlaw,” Brown declared that “nothing is more important” than resisting the Trump administration on emissions that cause smog and contribute to climate change, calling them “an existential threat to America, to California and to the world.”
“It’s an outrage that I find it difficult to find words to describe,” Brown told reporters with Becerra and Nichols at his side.
Brown has made climate change the hallmark issue of his second governorship, often offering himself as an alternative American political leader in international forums. He will finish his 16 years as governor this fall with a global conference in San Francisco to solidify that self-appointed role; there is little doubt he will make it his post-political mission.
So what will happen on this latest cross-country duel?
Having the automakers a third player in the squabble makes it particularly complex, especially because of the waiver. Ultimately, industry executives might have to decide whether having one national standard is more important than gaining partial relief – unless, of course, the Trumpies can successfully repeal California’s waiver and force it and its followers to accept lower standards.
It’s also possible, and perhaps likely, that a prolonged legal battle would outlast the Trump presidency.
Dan Walters writes on matters of statewide significance for CALmatters, a public-interest journalism organization. Go to calmatters.org/commentary.