A game of political chicken

California and its governor, Gavin Newsom, scored a tactical win last week in the war with President Donald Trump over just about everything.

Newsom announced that four major automakers had agreed to adhere to tight – albeit slightly loosened – mileage standards aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions to fight climate change.

The agreement fractures auto industry solidarity as California and Trump battle over whether nationwide emission standards that had been adopted during the Obama administration should be kept in place or rolled back.

The industry had originally, if somewhat reluctantly, agreed to the standards in the interest of having one nationwide policy, rather than dealing with the issue on a state-by-state basis.

However, once Trump was elected, automakers appealed to him to loosen the mileage requirement, an average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, saying it was unrealistic. Trump proposed to freeze the current requirement of 37 mpg by 2021.

California quickly took leadership of resisting the freeze, and Trump reacted by threatening to eliminate the state’s long-standing “waiver” that allows it to set its own emission rules. Automakers, having sparked the conflict, appealed to both sides to forge a compromise on a new and reachable nationwide standard but talks broke down amid mutual fingerpointing.

The new agreement between California and automakers Ford, Honda, BMW and Volkswagen gives them an extra year to meet tighter mileage standards and shaves a few miles per gallon from what would become a 2026 standard. It presumably involves 13 other states that follow California’s lead, and could – emphasis could – change the issue’s political dynamic.

“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,” the four automakers said in a joint statement.

Newsom said in his announcement: “I now call on the rest of the auto industry to join us, and for the Trump administration to adopt this pragmatic compromise instead of pursuing its regressive rule change. It’s the right thing for our economy, our people and our planet.”

The Trumpies, however, didn’t show any signs of retreating. Michael Abboud, a spokesperson for the Environmental Protection Agency, declared that the deal “has no impact on EPA’s regulation of greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. 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.”

It’s a game of political chicken.

Were other automakers to join the California four, it probably would end the conflict with a win for Newsom, California and the 13 other states. But if they don’t and Trump forges ahead with the freeze, California and its allies will sue and stall a final resolution until sometime after the 2020 presidential election.

Were Trump to lose to a Democrat, the Obama-era standards would remain in place, or perhaps be altered to match the new California rubric. Were he to be re-elected, the battle would continue in the courts and other arenas and Trump would stand a better chance of prevailing.

No matter what happens, Newsom’s national image as a leader of the anti-Trump “resistance” is bolstered and it also appears to help him at home. A new Public Policy Institute of California poll found that “Overwhelming majorities (75% adults, 76% likely voters) favor requiring automakers to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions from new cars.”

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