In summary

The auto company, aligned with President Trump, now aligns with president-elect Joe Biden in climate change plans.

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In a politically-charged reversal, General Motors announced today that it has abandoned the Trump administration’s attack on California’s authority to set automobile standards that reduce greenhouse gases.

General Motors chairman and CEO Mary Barra said the company was immediately pulling its support from the Trump administration in court battles against California and environmental groups because it supports President-elect Joe Biden’s plans to expand electrification of cars. Barra called California Gov. Gavin Newsom today, but didn’t reach him, so she informed Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols of the decision.

“Given this shared enthusiasm and the President-elect’s call to bring the country back together, we believe there is now a path to achieve agreement on a national standard and complementary policies to accelerate the electrification of the light-duty transportation sector,” Barra wrote in a letter to major environmental groups. 

The announcement comes after a four-year battle over federal rollbacks of Obama-era rules that curb greenhouse gases and smog-forming emissions from cars. 

“To better foster the necessary dialogue, we are immediately withdrawing from the preemption litigation and inviting other automakers to join us.”

mary barra, General Motors CEO

The Trump administration set new, less stringent fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards in March after stripping California of its unique authority to set its own standards. California and major environmental groups are fighting the rollbacks in court, and General Motors, along with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Toyota and others backed the Trump administration in the suit last fall.

Now, with Biden just months away from entering the White House, automakers are adjusting to the new political reality, said Julia Stein, supervising attorney at UCLA’s Frank G. Wells Environmental Law Clinic. 

“What this letter seems to me to signal is that everybody else in the industry now realizes there’s a change of administration that is going to set new standards,” Stein said. “And they are going to be more aggressive — much more aggressive — than what the Trump administration has set.”

The Biden-Harris transition team did not respond to a request for comment. But Biden has been clear about his plans to promote electric vehicles. His campaign pledged to build more than half a million electric vehicle charging stations and floated plans for complete electrification of all new light- and medium-duty vehicles sold. And his transition team promised investments in one million new auto industry jobs nationwide

In the meantime, Stein sees GM’s announcement as a signal that the largest U.S. car manufacturer wants to come back to the table. 

“It seems like a little bit of an olive branch to me,” Stein said. “Like, ‘Okay, we see this is going to be a conversation about what happens next in terms of the fuel economy standards, and we want to be part of that conversation.’”

California Air Resources Board Member Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California Davis, welcomed GM’s decision.

“We’re delighted that GM has finally seen the light,” he said.  “Having General Motors’ buy-in is important.” 

But he also was suspicious of the timing. “This is clearly an opportunistic play,” he said. “Why didn’t they do this two weeks ago or three weeks ago, right? And now they’re claiming leadership, that they’re playing a leadership role. Well, that’s a little late to the party.”

Barra said in her letter that she hoped other automakers would follow GM’s lead. 

“To better foster the necessary dialogue, we are immediately withdrawing from the preemption litigation and inviting other automakers to join us,” Barra wrote. 

Other automakers did not take immediate action.

“Given the changing circumstances, we are assessing the situation, but remain committed to our goal of a consistent, unitary set of fuel economy standards applicable in all 50 states,” said Ed Hellwig, a spokesperson for Toyota. 

“Now they’re claiming leadership… Well, that’s a little late to the party.”

DANIEL SPERLING, Air Resources Board Member

California already has the support of other major manufacturers. In a detour around federal rollbacks, the state cut a deal with Ford, Honda, BMW of North America (including Rolls Royce), Volkswagen Group of America (including Audi) and Volvo. The companies agreed to meet a more relaxed set of California requirements nationwide rather than fall in line with the less-stringent federal tailpipe standards set by the Trump administration.

California last fall announced it would stop buying vehicles from manufacturers that opposed them in court, including GM’s Chevrolets, which the state spent more than $27 million on in 2018. 

In the letter, Barra referenced GM’s recent pledges to invest $27 million in electric and autonomous vehicles and release 30 new electric vehicles worldwide by 2025. 

California Gov. Newsom in September signed an executive order that aims to eliminate the sale of new models of traditional gas-powered cars in California by 2035. 

“Addressing climate change by reducing harmful greenhouse gas is good for our families and our economy,” Newsom said in a statement. “GM’s acknowledgment of the reality that the future is zero emissions is further confirmation that it is time to move toward clean cars.”

David Reichmuth, senior engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Clean Transportation Program, said that GM needs to deliver on those pledges. 

“Many new models are promised, but we need GM to quickly move to higher volumes of EV sales,” he said.

Stein sees something else between the lines of the company’s letter: an acknowledgement of California’s role in leading transportation policy. More than a dozen other states follow its clean car rules, making up nearly a third of the market for new vehicle sales. 

“California is part of this conversation,” Stein said. “And it’s going to be part of this conversation with an administration that isn’t looking to revoke California’s waiver and cut off its ability to do this kind of regulation for itself.”

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Rachel Becker is a journalist reporting on California’s complex water challenges and water policy issues for CalMatters. Rachel has a background in biology, with master's degrees in both immunology and...