Trump fuel efficiency rollback hits speed bump as major car companies strike deal with California

Lawmakers now say the administration's rollback proposal is "dead on arrival."

Carmakers join California's push for fuel efficiency in blow against Trump administration
Carmakers join California's push for fuel efficiency in blow against Trump administration. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

Four major automobile manufacturers have joined California in its push for more fuel-efficient vehicles. The agreement was the result of “secret negotiations” and deals a major blow to President Donald Trump’s war with California and one of the administration’s most significant national policy rollback efforts.

As The Washington Post revealed on Thursday, Ford, Honda, Volkswagen, and BMW of North America have reached a deal with the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to produce fleets that average roughly 50 miles per gallon by model year 2026 — that’s just one year later than the Obama-era target deadline. Together, these four companies represent around 30% of the U.S. auto market.

The Environmental Protection Agency has already called the agreement a “PR stunt.”

“This voluntary framework is a PR stunt that does nothing to further the one national standard that will provide certainty and relief for American consumers,” EPA spokesman Michael Abboud stated Thursday. “As the Administration stated earlier this year, despite our best efforts to reach a common-sense solution with CARB, they continually refused to produce reasonable and responsible proposals.”


Rep. Doris Matsui (D-CA) said in statement this week that the new deal means Trump’s rollback proposal is “dead on arrival.”

In April 2018, under former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, the agency announced it would be rolling back the previous administration’s vehicle emission rules, freezing mileage standards between 2020 and 2026.

While the Obama administration argued its stricter rules were necessary to protect human health, fight climate change, and save consumers money (more efficient vehicles means spending less on gas), the Trump administration says freezing the standards will save consumers thousands of dollars on new vehicles and avoid a thousand deaths per year.

The push to weaken these fuel efficiency standards comes at a time when the transportation sector has overtaken power plants as the largest emitter of carbon dioxide.


The rules that the Trump administration wants to roll back have been projected to reduce carbon emission by 6 billion tons, save consumers $1.7 trillion in fuel costs, and reduce oil consumption by up to 4 million barrels every day. And a poll last year found that nearly 7 in 10 American voters want the existing standards to remain in place.

Since the rules were adopted in 2012, drivers have saved more than $57 billion on gasoline thanks to these standards and have reduced emissions by 228 million metric tons, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

By 2040, if the Trump rollbacks are put into place, annual pollution will reach the equivalent of 43 coal-fired power plants, environmental group EarthJustice has said.

The new standard agreed between California and the automakers, however, is weaker than what was set by the Obama administration; whereas the Obama-era rule imposed a 4.7% increase in efficiency the new deal puts that at 3.7%. Regardless, it’s stronger than what the Trump administration has proposed.

“We encourage every automaker to adhere to, or improve upon, the clean car standards set by the Obama administration and support state authority no matter what the current administration does,” the League of Conservation Voters said in a statement.


Not only does the deal serve as a hopeful step in pursuing climate action, it also throws a wrench in Trump’s anti-environment crusade.

With his efforts to roll back the rules facing almost certain legal challenges — California and more than a dozen others states have previously threatened to sue the administration over the rollback — it’s unclear what the shape of any final rule change might be or when that would come into effect.

Because of this, Matsui urged “all automakers to support this reasonable path forward that could prevent years of litigation and economic uncertainty.”

Too much uncertainty is, effectively, bad for business.

In a joint statement, the four automakers said, “These terms will provide our companies much-needed regulatory certainty by allowing us to meet both federal and state requirements with a single national fleet, avoiding a patchwork of regulations while continuing to ensure meaningful greenhouse gas emissions reductions.”

Following the Trump administration’s proposed standards would have also risked the possibility of U.S. industry falling behind in innovation. As other states and countries’ demand for more efficient vehicles increase, the ability of American manufacturers to compete would have been substantially impeded.

California, for instance, is unique in that it has long held a waiver giving it the authority to set its own, stricter, fuel efficiency standards. And because the state’s economy is so large, these stricter standards have forced automakers to design cars that fit within the state’s standards and more than a dozen other states now operate according to California’s standards. In Europe, more fuel-efficient hatchbacks and super minis top the sales charts and last month the Canadian government announced it too would be aligning with California’s mileage requirements.

“As we tackle the climate crisis, it’s imperative that auto companies have predictability and consumers benefit from innovation and more efficient vehicles, and this agreement helps ensure that happens,” Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-NJ) said in a statement.

“Every automaker has the opportunity to join this agreement,” he added, “and I encourage them to do so. This deal should form the basis for federal policy, and I will be working to make sure it does.”