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It’s a game of three-cushion billiards, being played not in a dingy pool hall but in Donald Trump’s Washington, Jerry Brown’s Sacramento and in the executive suites of major automakers.
Trump’s administration, answering pleas of auto executives, wants to roll back more stringent fuel efficiency standards promulgated during the final days of the predecessor Obama administration – rules that, at the time, California, other like-minded states and the auto industry jointly supported.
Gov. Brown and his top smog-fighter, Mary Nichols, are insisting that California will maintain their tough auto mileage/emission rules regardless of what happens in Washington, but the Trumpies may seek to eliminate the long-standing “waiver” allowing California to set its own standards.
The automakers now want relief from the Obama-era rules, saying that they can’t meet them while building the cars and trucks that American motorists prefer, especially low-mileage pickup trucks and SUVs. However, they also don’t want to be compelled to make and sell different vehicles in California, and a dozen other states that follow its lead, than they peddle in the rest of the nation.
California, et al, account for about a third of the nation’s auto sales, so the industry wants one national standard, presumably one that’s lower. But California is refusing to budge and the stage is set for the latest of many conflicts between a Democratic state and Trump’s national government.
On Tuesday, Brown, Nichols and Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced that California and 17 other states are suing to block Scott Pruitt, Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency administrator, from rolling back the auto mileage rules, saying such action would violate federal rule-making procedures.
It is the 32nd suit that California has filed against the Trump administration on dozens of specific issues, including several previous ones on environmental issues. Becerra says that so far the state has prevailed on 11 of the cases, while the federal government has not registered a single win.
Nichols said that while nothing official has been released, draft documents reported in the media indicate that the Trump administration intends to cancel the state’s waiver that, prior to the Obama-era agreement, had allowed the state to set its own auto emission standards.
Referring to Pruitt as an “outlaw,” Brown declared that “nothing is more important” than resisting the Trump administration on emissions that cause smog and contribute to climate change, calling them “an existential threat to America, to California and to the world.”
“It’s an outrage that I find it difficult to find words to describe,” Brown told reporters during a Capitol news conference with Becerra and Nichols.
Brown has made climate change the hallmark issue of his second governorship, often offering himself as an alternative American political leader in international forums. He will close out his 16 years as governor this fall with a global conference in San Francisco that will solidify that self-appointed role, and has left little doubt that he will make it his post-political mission.
So what will happen on this latest cross-country duel?
Having the automakers a third player in the squabble makes it particularly complex, especially so because of the waiver aspect. Ultimately, industry executives may have to decide whether having one national standard is more important than gaining partial relief – unless, of course, the Trumpies can successfully repeal California’s waiver and force it and its followers in other states to accept a lower standard.
It’s also possible, and perhaps likely, that a prolonged legal battle would outlast the Trump presidency.