THE LIGHTBULB

Last September, Ericka McCauley drove her 5-year-old son from their home in northwest Indiana to Chicago to attend a youth climate strike.

The car she took was her gasoline-electric hybrid, a Toyota Highlander. “As soon as I could afford a hybrid SUV, I traded in my Chevy pickup truck for the Highlander,” McCauley said. “And one of the biggest reasons is because I want to do my part.”

But now McCauley, a communications manager for a healthcare system, has her doubts about buying another Toyota. It has little to do with how her hybrid performs on the road — and a lot more to do with what the company just decided in the boardroom.

"I'll probably be looking at other automakers that are moving forward before I go back to looking at Toyota," she said.

This could be a worrying sign for Toyota, which backed the Trump administration last week in trying to strip California of its ability to set more stringent fuel-efficiency standards in an effort to combat climate change. 

The Japanese automaker, joined by General Motors and Fiat Chrysler, is not the only car company taking the Trump administration’s side in the high-stakes legal fight. But Toyota’s position may be particularly risky since it has spent decades cultivating an environmentally conscious reputation for pioneering the Prius, the first mass-market hybrid in the United States, along with other hybrid cars. 

Some Toyota owners, drawn to what they thought was a green brand, are in open revolt against the automaker. They're sending complaints to the company, taking to social media to call for boycotts and promising to buy cars that sided with California in its fight with President Trump. 

“I am outraged that they have taken their stance,” said Margot Tobias, a Toyota Camry owner from the San Francisco Bay area who is looking to buy a hybrid or fully electric vehicle within the next three years. “If Toyota continues with its stance, I will be looking at Honda or other options.” 

Jeff Schuster, a forecasting analyst at LMC Automotive, said Toyota and other automakers may see some downturn in hybrid and electric vehicle sales. “Toyota has built a reputation of being environmentally friendly so this decision may have some lasting volume loss with buyers focused in this area,” Schuster said.

But it remains to be seen how widespread and persistent the backlash is, since similar calls for boycotts on cars haven't lasted too long in the past.

The company is now trying to contain the fallout, explaining in a statement to customers that “reducing our impact … is built into our DNA” but that the federal government is the best entity for setting standards for pollution from tailpipes.

“What consumers are willing to do, what California is willing to do, what the federal government is willing to do and what automakers are willing to do — all of that has to be aligned. And in today’s polarizing political climate, that’s very, very difficult to do,” Jim Lentz, Toyota’s top executive in North America, said in a video sent to Toyota customers who complained to the company.

Lentz also sent an email to Toyota employees to reassure them the company wasn’t trying to appease Trump or anyone else in government with its decision. "Our decision to participate was in no way influenced by any politician or political party, despite some news and social chatter suggesting otherwise," he wrote.

The controversy illustrates, in some ways, just how successful Toyota has been at marketing itself to a certain kind of customer. First sold in 1997, the Prius achieved an iconic status through its first decade as one of the greenest cars on U.S. roadways. A survey in 2007 found that more than half of Prius drivers said that the main reason they purchased one was because “it makes a statement about me.” 

It might also be making a political statement: According to a GfK MRI survey this spring, Prius drivers are 60 percent more likely to identify as somewhat or very liberal. And these political leanings that may be fueling some of the outrage today.

Any appearance of breaking with that brand identity could pose risks in an increasingly crowded market, where environmentally-conscious customers will have plenty of low-mileage options. 

Ken Spaeth, who works in healthcare IT in Conifer, Colo., said that when he bought his Prius in 2007, some of his friends and family wondered if the new-fangled hybrid engine would hold up. “It was still, ‘Wow, that's crazy. Why would you want to buy a hybrid vehicle?’ ” Spaeth said. More than a decade later, he feels vindicated. The odometer on his Prius, which he still drives to work, is about to hit 152,000 miles. 

But that doesn’t mean he would buy a Toyota again, especially given its decision to side with Trump. “If I had my druthers, I'd probably buy an all-electric vehicle and I don't know that I would be looking at Toyota’s offerings,” he said, adding that he may buy a Tesla “if I could afford it.”

Despite hybrids being more popular than ever, Prius sales have dipped over the past six years. The competition “has made some pretty big strides,” especially compared to a decade ago when Toyota made a huge leap forward with hybrid technology in the form of the Prius, said Sean Hecht, co-executive director of the UCLA School of Law’s Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. 

Trucks and SUVs instead increasingly make up a bigger chunk of Toyota’s profits. And by selling more larger vehicles, the overall fuel economy of Toyota’s fleet actually declined slightly between model years 2012 and 2017, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Trump administration wants to require auto manufacturers to improve fuel efficiency at a rate of 1.5 percent a year. That’s a pace much slower than the 3.7 percent rate that would be required under the deal struck between California and four of Toyota’s competitors: Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW of North America.

As that legal fight plays out in the courts, time may be on Toyota’s side. 

Karl Brauer, executive publisher at Cox Automotive, said that similar calls to boycott GM and Chrysler for taking loans from the federal government during the 2009 recession faded away. So too did calls to stop buying cars from Volkswagen over its diesel emissions scandal.

“For every person you might lose during a headline-making story,” he said, “you can often gain another back through excellent product execution.”

David Barie, Scott Clement and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this post.

POWER PLAYS

— Former Obama EPA chief will lead Natural Resources Defense Council: Gina McCarthy, who led the EPA under the Obama administration, is the environmental group’s new president and chief executive officer. McCarthy told The Post’s Juliet Eilperin she’s joining the NRDC, which has sued the Trump administration almost 100 times, because she wanted to push for climate action and to further environmental protections. “I really didn’t want to sit on the sidelines. So the question was where to go,” she said. "Asked whether her decision to join the NRDC reflects the close relationship and access environmental groups had to Obama officials, McCarthy said that the organization sued her multiple times even though they shared similar goals," Eilperin adds. 

— Manchin backs Trump’s energy regulation nominee: Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said he plans to support James P. Danly, Trump’s pick to fill a vacant Republican spot on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. “The West Virginia senator’s support should all but clear the way for a precedent-breaking confirmation, despite opposition from Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer,” Roll Call reports. Schumer had asked the Energy Department’s internal watchdog to look into what he called “inconsistent and inaccurate ethics advice.”

  • Trump hasn’t named someone to fill FERC’s open Democratic seat: “The federal regulator of electric markets normally operates with two members of each party and a chairman picked by the president,” Roll Call adds. Manchin told reporters he would not hold up Danly’s nomination but said he urged Trump to fill the seat left by Democrat Cheryl LaFleur, who resigned in August. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the committee chairwoman, said she supports Danly and hoped the pairing issue “will not be what drives anyone to oppose” his nomination.

— Trump energy aide a no-show: Wells Griffith, a top White House energy adviser, was scheduled to appear before House impeachment investigators on Tuesday but did not show up. “Lawmakers want to hear from Wells Griffith, who handles international energy issues at the National Security Council, because he accompanied Fiona Hill, an expert on Russia who left the White House in July, when she told an NSC lawyer she heard Trump officials pressing Ukrainian leaders for an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son as a condition for a White House visit,” E&E News reports.

— These California mayors want to buy out PG&E: More than two dozen California mayors joined San Jose’s Democratic Mayor Sam Liccardo in calling on the California Public Utilities Commission to turn Pacific Gas & Electric into a customer-owned utility.

  • Why? The coalition of mayors, which represents more than 5 million residents, wrote that unlike investor-owned PG&E, which estimates it needs billions over the next 10 years to revamp its system to protect from wildfires and other risks, a customer-owned utility “can operate without the burdens of paying dividends to shareholders” and “will better focus its scarce dollars on long-neglected maintenance, repairs, and capital upgrade."
  • From the letter: The dire situation for PG&E, which filed for bankruptcy in January amid billions in liability claims for sparking some of the state's deadliest blazes, requires a full and comprehensive effort to chart a sustainable course for the future of PG&E, one that will serve the interests of its customers, and position the company to meet the challenges we will face from a changing climate," the mayors wrote.

— On the docket: The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Wednesday in a case about Maui County's use of disposal wells that drained treated wastewater into the Pacific Ocean, damaging sensitive coral reefs. "Plaintiffs argue that is a violation of the 1972 Clean Water Act, the federal law regulating the discharge of pollutants into surface waters like oceans, lakes, and rivers. The law specifically only covers discharge into so-called 'navigable waters' rather than groundwater pollution," Hawaii Public Radio reports.

  • What's at stake: The case will have broad consequences for how the Clean Water Act can be applied nationwide, "potentially resulting in either a significant expansion or restriction on how the 47-year-old law can be applied."  
  • Elsewhere in Hawaii: Honolulu is planning to sue fossil fuel companies to keep them “accountable for the costs and consequences” of climate change, Hawaii News Now reports. Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell (D) announced the plans during a news conference, during which he said major oil companies have known for decades about the impact carbon emissions would have on the climate. “We’re starting the first steps to protect our island of Oahu, our state of Hawaii and our planet,” Caldwell said. He said the lawsuit will "seek damages to mitigate the impacts of our climate crisis." 

— “We’re asking for a transformative change for humanity”: In a new paper, 11,258 scientists from 153 countries declared that Earth “clearly and unequivocally faces a climate emergency.”

  • The significance: It’s the first time such a big group of scientists has supported calling the changing climate an “emergency,” The Post’s Andrew Freedman reports
  • What exactly they're asking for: The study calls for implementing energy efficiency and conservation practices, cutting fossil fuels and expanding renewable energy resources. “Other items on the study’s list of policy priorities include quickly cutting emissions of short-lived climate pollutants, such as soot and methane, which could slow short-term warming,” Freedman adds. “The study also calls for a shift to eating mostly plant-based foods and instituting agricultural practices that increase the amount of carbon the soil absorbs.” 

— Man, it’s a hot one: Stop us if you’ve heard this one before. Last month was the warmest October on record — global average surface temperatures were 1.24 degrees above average compared to the 1981-2010 average, beating the previous 2015 record by .02 degrees, Freedman reports. The finding from the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service is “significant because it shows that 2019 is certain to be one of the warmest years on record, continuing a trend scientists attribute to increasing amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere due to human activities.”  

— Jane Fonda defends her activism: Actress Jane Fonda, who has been arrested in Washington every Friday for the past four weeks, credited youth climate activists for inspiring her civil disobedience during an interview on ABC's "The View." “Not just Greta Thunberg, the Swedish student, but the Sunrise Movement, the Extinction movement, all these young people who are leaving school to protest the future that we’re taking from them. They’re a huge inspiration to me,” she said. When asked if there was a way to call attention to climate change “without breaking the law,” Fonda said: “You know something, climate activists have been doing this for 40 years… we’ve marched and we’ve rallied peacefully and the fossil fuel industry is doing more and more to harm us and the environment…And so we have to up the ante.”

— How much is a whale worth? The world population of whales is worth more than $1 trillion, according to a recent report, in part because of tourism, the nutrients whales disperse and the carbon their bodies captured, The Post’s Ben Guarino reports. “They didn’t get cute with the problem. They made the perfectly sensible suggestion that, as a store of carbon, whales ought to be valued when alive on the basis of their carbon content,” University of Cambridge environmental economist Partha Dasgupta, who was not part of the study, told Guarino about the research. 

DAYBOOK

Coming Up

  • The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee holds a hearing to examine implementation of the 2018 Farm Bill, focusing on rural development and energy programs on Thursday.
  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds an oversight hearing on Thursday.

EXTRA MILEAGE

— “OK, boomer”: Chlöe Swarbrick, a 25-year-old member of the New Zealand Parliament, had that retort for a colleague who heckled her as she spoke about the burden of dealing with the climate crisis, as The Post’s Reis Thebault reports.