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California blasts Trump proposal to freeze fuel-efficiency standards as ‘flawed’ and ‘illegal’

Traffic on Highway 101 in San Francisco in May. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

California officials on Friday plan to submit a 400-page repudiation of the Trump administration’s proposal to freeze fuel-efficiency standards for the nation’s cars and trucks through 2026, calling it a deeply flawed, disingenuous effort that will harm the health and pocketbooks of Americans.

“Finalizing this proposal would worsen air quality for the most vulnerable, waste billions of gallons of gasoline, forfeit our best chance to fight climate change, and result in years of uncertainty in the marketplace,” reads a draft of comments from the California Air Resources Board (CARB) obtained by The Washington Post. It calls the Trump administration’s plan “a contrived solution to justify a predetermined outcome.”

The scathing document, which foreshadows the outlines of a potential legal battle between the federal government and numerous states, attacks nearly every part of an analysis published in August by the administration. That proposal found that tightening fuel requirements would make new vehicles more expensive and encourage people to drive older, less-safe vehicles.

California argues the government relied on modeling that is “fundamentally inappropriate” and does not “reflect reality,” resulting in “a stack of bad ideas” that “do not pass basic tests of mathematical and statistical rigor.”

California officials also blast the administration for arguing that the increased greenhouse-gas emissions that would result from its proposal would have little impact on the climate, because the world already is on track for seven degrees Fahrenheit of warming by the end of the century.

“This is a nihilistic and fatalistic view that future generations will necessarily be subject to a climate in which human civilization as it currently exists is impossible. It is also illegal,” state officials wrote in their draft, referring to a Supreme Court finding that the government has a legal obligation to regulate carbon dioxide emissions.

“They are continuing their war not only on science but on common sense,” California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) said in an interview Thursday, calling President Trump’s approach a “profoundly misguided and dangerous” proposal that would harm the car industry and consumers.

Officials at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration declined to address California’s critique, saying only that they will follow legal requirements for reviewing and responding to comments.

On Friday morning, the Environmental Protection Agency’s acting administrator, Andrew Wheeler, faulted California for failing to work with the agency to help find a 50-state solution. Wheeler said in a statement that when he met with CARB chairwoman Mary Nichols in July, she promised to submit a proposal from California on how to find common ground with the federal government.

“It has been 10 weeks and the Trump Administration has still yet to receive a counter-proposal,” Wheeler said in a statement. “It is my hope that we can continue to work together and reach one national standard that will get more Americans into newer, cleaner, and safer vehicles.”

California’s criticism will join the more than 72,000 comments that the government has received on its controversial proposal. The comment period is scheduled to close Friday.

But the fight over rolling back fuel-efficiency standards is probably just beginning.

During the Obama administration, the federal government worked with California and the auto industry to craft a uniform set of national fuel-economy standards. The White House’s latest proposal threatens to blow up that delicate compromise.

Trump has proposed revoking California’s long-standing legal ability to set its own, more stringent tailpipe standards — and restricting the ability of other states to follow its lead. His proposal rejects findings by the Obama administration that more-fuel-efficient vehicles would improve public health, combat climate change and save consumers money without compromising safety.

Trump’s proposal estimates that halting fuel-efficiency targets at 2020 levels could save $500 billion in “societal costs,” avert thousands of highway fatalities and save an estimated $2,340 on each new automobile.

A group of nearly two dozen attorneys general have vowed to use every legal tool available to defend the Obama-era fuel standards, which would require automakers to reach a fleetwide average of roughly 54 miles per gallon by 2025. In addition, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D) and other officials say they will go to court if necessary to preserve the state’s ability to set its own standards.

If California were to prevail, the state could set tougher standards than the federal government, leaving automakers with the specter of manufacturing vehicles that meet different rules in different states. The prospect of an ugly and protracted legal standoff with California has some carmakers scrambling for a compromise.

General Motors, as part of its comments Friday on the administration’s proposal, plans to make a pitch that executives hope could end the federal-state standoff. The company wants a national program requiring that a growing percentage of cars sold in each state be fully electric or otherwise have very low emissions. California has such a “zero-emission vehicle” requirement, which a group of other states follows.

Expending GM’s resources on such a clear nationwide goal would be more efficient than having to follow today’s numerous and complex standards, said Mark Reuss, a GM executive vice president and president of its Global Product Group, adding the company is working to get beyond the administration’s proposed freeze. “We know we can do better than that,” Reuss said. “We know the industry can do better than that.”

GM’s comments underscore automakers’ uneasiness with the administration’s regulatory rollback. Shortly after Trump took office, the industry urged the administration to relax the Obama-era standards. A February 2017 letter from the Auto Alliance, which represents most major automakers, said the EPA’s move to forge ahead with stricter tailpipe standards “may be the single most important decision that EPA has made in recent history.”

Last month, the Auto Alliance appealed to the administration for an extension in the deadline to comment on its latest proposal. “Due to extensive changes” in the analytical model NHTSA used to set the policy, an extension of at least a couple of months is “reasonable and necessary,” the group wrote. In response, NHTSA’s deputy administrator, Heidi King, offered a three-day extension.

At a public hearing later on the proposal, a Ford executive said: “Let me be clear — we do not support standing still. Clean car standards should increase year over year, with the inclusion of provisions that promote ongoing investment in technology that will further drive greenhouse-gas reductions.”

On Thursday, even as he said California would vehemently oppose Trump’s proposal, Brown held a sliver of hope that the president might alter course.

“He can change,” Brown said, “and I hope to hell he does.”

Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.