Will California Go to the Mat Over a Tougher MPG Standard?

Will California Go to the Mat Over a Tougher MPG Standard?

California and the US Environmental Protection Agency are at odds over pending fuel economy standards. California has gone so far as to sue the EPA over administrator Scott Pruitt’s plan to roll back greenhouse gas emissions standards. This follows reports the EPA would freeze fuel economy standards at the 2020 level.

A dozen other mostly northeastern states have the option to follow either US (EPA) or California emissions and mileage regulations; together those states account for 40 percent of vehicles sold in the US. At Friday’s meeting between President Trump and leaders from a dozen automakers, Trump reportedly agreed to negotiate with California to find common ground for a single standard, which automakers would prefer.

Will California Go to the Mat Over a Tougher MPG Standard?

One Strict Standard Preferred by Automakers

Automakers have said both privately and publicly that they’d prefer for meet a single standard for crash safety, emissions, or fuel economy, rather than build multiple cars for the US market. They’d even prefer to meet single world standards. For instance, when the US first required the third, high-mounted brake lamp (usually at the base of the rear window, now sometimes an LED strip along the edge of the trunk lid), global automakers were faced with countries that required the CMSL (center-mount stop lamp), countries such as Japan that forbid it, and countries that had no rules either way. That’s simple compared with emissions or economy issues.

California has had the nation’s worst big-city air pollution, stretching back to the 1950s in the Los Angeles basin. It’s now markedly better, in part because California negotiated the right to set its own tough air pollution standards thanks to the state’s high population, geographic peculiarities (the ring of mountains around LA), and the state’s extreme reliance (in Southern California especially) on car commuting rather than mass transit. Other states gained the option to require the sales of cars that meet California requirements.

At issue is a draft proposal that has the EPA freezing the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standard at the 2020 level of about 30 mpg — real-world mpg — and holding to that through 2025. Under Obama’s watch, the EPA has the real-world fuel economy increasing to 36 mpg, about 20 mpg higher than it is now. That’s the standard that California in 2012 said it would follow, giving the US a single fuel economy standard.

Automakers Urge a Compromise

Early this month, Mitch Bainwol, President and CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, told Congress he hoped the administration would find a compromise solution that a) increases mileage requirements from 2022 to 2025 (with no increases 2021-2022) and b) includes California and the dozen California tag-along states under the one standard.

According to people at the meeting of Trump and a dozen automaker higher-ups, after Trump made his public comments about wanting more manufacturing in the US, they got down to talking about pending problems if California goes its own way. Trump reportedly told the automakers he’d have Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt lead talks with California officials.

The automakers’ apparent goal is to agree to somewhat higher mpg standards, but not so much as to get California filing more lawsuits. California has the right to set pollution standards. If it has the right to set CO2 standards, it effectively sets mpg standards, since CO2 is created in direct proportion to how much carbon-based fuel — gasoline, diesel, natural gas — is burned.

Since the 2012 emissions standard set in the Obama era, the ration of cars to trucks (pickups, SUVs, crossovers) has flipped from 50-50 to 65-35 trucks, which have worse fuel economy. It’s not helped by automakers such as Ford and Chrysler dropping much of their sedan offerings.

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