Week 135: California Is Driving Trump Crazy on Auto Emissions

Plus, national parks are getting hazy (again), and Trump makes a quixotic bid to buy Greenland.

August 23, 2019

Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.

Photo illustration: Virginia Lee for onEarth (Trump and Newsom photos: Gage Skidmore. EV photo: Dennis Schroeder/NREL)


About one month after President Trump took office, the big carmakers sent a letter to then U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt. It asked the EPA to withdraw President Obama’s fuel efficiency standards, which were set to become stricter in 2022. The letter was extremely dramatic, calling the rule “the single most important decision that EPA has made in recent history” (from the industry’s perspective).

When you write an overheated letter, you get an overheated response. The Trump administration didn’t just roll back Obama’s standards; it basically stalled the steady progress the country has made on fuel efficiency over the course of decades.

This, however, was not the outcome the auto industry was hoping for. Carmakers wanted a tiny rollback, not an all-out retreat. Automakers knew that California has the legal right to set its own fuel efficiency standards, and the Golden State wasn’t likely to sit idly by while the cartoon villains at Trump’s EPA undid years of cooperative pollution reduction work. Even more worryingly for carmakers, California was not alone. Thirteen other states follow California’s emissions standards, representing nearly a third of the U.S. auto market.

In May 2018, California, along with 16 other states, legally challenged the Trump administration, setting up a protracted court battle and leaving car companies with the prospect of making cars for two entirely different emissions authorities. The automakers lobbied the Trump administration, begging the president to strike a deal with California and to relieve the industry of many years of uncertainty. Not being one to change his mind, especially in the face of overwhelming evidence that he has erred, the president refused.

So in late July, after secret negotiations, four automakers—Ford Motor Company, Volkswagen of America, Honda, and BMW—struck their own deal with California. The state would slightly ease the Obama-era regulations it had adopted in exchange for the carmakers’ acquiescence. This week, news leaked that Mercedes-Benz and a sixth, unnamed manufacturer are preparing to join the California alliance as well, and the New York Times reports that President Trump is “enraged.” Trump is probably sore not because he cares about fuel efficiency standards, but because California has beaten and embarrassed him in a very public fashion.

There’s likely more humiliation to come. California claims there are several more carmakers on the verge of joining their breakaway group, which already represents 30 percent of the cars currently sold in the United States. Most of the administrators, like Pruitt, who worked on the auto emissions rollbacks have left the Trump administration, and currently a 29-year-old White House aide with little experience in the field is leading the negotiations. (The staffing choices alone tell you how little time Trump spends worrying about auto emissions standards.)

Keep in mind, these troubles are piling up before the Trump rules have even seen the inside of a courtroom, where administration lawyers are going to have to provide some kind of rational explanation for ending decades of progress on the greenhouse gases and air pollution being generated on the nation’s roads.

Honk if you love California!

The Great Smoky Mountains, Now Even Smokier

Nothing ruins your national park scenic selfies like air pollution. Recognizing this problem, the EPA hatched a plan in 1999 to reduce haze and increase visibility in national parks and wilderness areas. The program has been a success, increasing the visual range by 50 to120 miles, depending on the park and region. The Obama administration had ambitious plans to push those gains even further.

Trump’s EPA decided this week, however, that we can already see enough. In the agency’s new guidelines to states, it largely removes itself from the haze-clearing process and calls on state governments to do much of the technical work. The guidelines also assume that state governments will take responsibility for air pollution in national parks, ending the federal government’s longstanding practice of identifying the worst pollution sources for the states to target, and lengthening or removing all timetables for improvements. The process was wrong from the very beginning, as the Trump administration failed to even consult with stakeholders before developing the new guidelines.

Expect a lawsuit challenging the guidelines, because the haze reduction program still has a lot of work to do. According to the National Parks Conservation Association, haze still affects 90 percent of national park sites, and on average, visitors are missing out on 50 miles of visibility—which is a shame since the Grand Canyon is so much more beautiful when you can actually see it.

Voted Off the Island

President Trump’s out-of-the-blue bid to buy Greenland from Denmark was stymied this week, prompting the president to cancel his trip to Copenhagen (and insult the Danes in the process). Trump saw the opportunity to turn the semiautonomous territory into “a large real estate deal,” even though there was no indication whatsoever that Denmark was considering selling. “Greenland is not Danish. Greenland belongs to Greenland,” Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen told newspapers last week.

Why does Trump want Greenland? Probably because it’s rich in uranium, rare earth metals, and coal. Still, the deal-that-never-was would have been an odd move, considering Trump is already failing to revive the U.S. coal industry. Bringing in more coal (that we don’t want or need) is a strange perversion of supply and demand, but Trump works in mysterious ways.

Demand real leadership at the EPA

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch or following it on Facebook or Twitter.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.


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