Trump's rollback of auto pollution rules shows signs of disarray

FILE - In this Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015, file photo, 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokees appear on display at a Fiat Chrysler dealership in Doral, Fla. On Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017, the U.S. government alleged that Fiat Chrysler Automobiles failed to disclose that software in some of its pickups and SUVs with diesel engines allows them to emit more pollution than allowed under the Clean Air Act. The Environmental Protection Agency said in a statement that it issued a "notice of violation" to the company that covers about 104,000 vehicles, including the 2014 through 2016 Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Ram pickups, all with 3-liter diesel engines. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz, File)

WASHINGTON - The White House, blindsided by a pact between California and four automakers to oppose President Donald Trump's auto emissions rollbacks, has mounted an effort to prevent any more from joining the other side.

Toyota, Fiat Chrysler and General Motors were all summoned by a senior Trump adviser to a White House meeting last month where he pressed them to stand by the president's own initiative, according to four people familiar with the talks.

But even as the White House was working to do this, it was losing ground. Yet another company, Mercedes-Benz, is now preparing to join the California agreement, according to two people familiar with the German company's plans.

Trump, described by three people as "enraged" by California's deal, has also demanded that his staffers step up the pace to complete his plan. His proposal, however, is directly at odds with the wishes of many automakers, which fear that the aggressive rollbacks will spark a legal battle between California and the federal government that could split the United States car market in two.

The administration's efforts to weaken the Obama-era pollution rules could be rendered irrelevant if too many automakers join California in opposition before the plan can be put into effect. That could imperil one of Trump's most far-reaching rollbacks of climate-change policies.

In addition to Mercedes-Benz, a sixth prominent automaker - one of the three summoned last month to the White House - also intends to disregard the Trump proposal and stick to the current, stricter federal emissions standards for at least the next four years, according to executives at the company.

Together, the six manufacturers who plan not to adhere to the new Trump rules - account for more than 40% of all cars sold in the United States.

"You get to a point where, if enough companies are with California, then what the Trump administration is doing is moot," said Alan Krupnick, an economist with Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan energy and environment research organization.

An EPA assessment of the 2017 Honda CR-V, the bestselling SUV in the country that year, showed the car is set to meet 2022 Obama-era targets five years ahead of schedule. Honda is one of the four automakers to have signed on to the California pact, along with Ford, Volkswagen and BMW.

A senior administration official said the California pact was an effort to force Americans to buy expensive vehicles that they don't want or need. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he called the pact "top-down policymaking with California trying to impose its standard on 49 other states."

The Trump administration's proposal would drastically weaken the 2012 vehicle pollution standards put in place by President Barack Obama, which remain the single-largest policy enacted by the United States to reduce planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions. The Obama-era rules require automakers to nearly double the average fuel economy of new cars and trucks to 54.5 mpg by 2025, cutting carbon dioxide pollution by about 6 billion tons over the lifetime of all the cars affected by the regulations, about the same amount the United States produces in a year.

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps the sun's heat and is a major contributor to climate change.

Trump has billed his plan, which would freeze the standards at about 37 mpg, as a deregulatory win for automakers that will also keep down car prices for U.S. consumers. Trump's plan would also revoke the legal authority of California and other states to impose their own emissions standards.

In an extraordinary move, automakers have balked at Trump's proposal, mainly because California and 13 other states plan to continue enforcing their current, stricter rules, and to sue the Trump administration. That could lead to a nightmare scenario for automakers: Years of regulatory uncertainty and a U.S. auto market that effectively split in two.

Last week, California officials said in interviews that they expected more automakers to join their pact, which commits carmakers to build vehicles to a standard nearly as strict as the Obama-era rules that the president would like to weaken. "Many companies have told us - more than one or two - that they would sign up the agreement as soon as they felt free to do so," said Mary Nichols, the top clean air official in California.

Officials from Mercedes-Benz declined to comment.

Executives from the three auto companies summoned to the White House declined to comment publicly on their interactions with the Trump administration. But at a recent press event, Mike Manley, Fiat Chrysler's chief executive, said of the California pact: "We are absolutely going to have a look at it and see what it means."

In the Trump administration, three senior political officials working on the rollback, a complex legal and scientific process, have all left the administration recently. A senior career official with years of experience on vehicle pollution policy was transferred to another office.

That means the process is now being helmed by Francis Brooke, a 29-year-old White House aide with limited experience in climate change policy before moving over from Vice President Mike Pence's office last year. Given the lack of experienced senior staffers, people working on the plan say it is now unlikely to be completed before October.

At the same time, staff members at the Environmental Protection Agency and Transportation Department, which are writing the rule, say they are struggling to assemble a coherent technical and scientific analysis required by law to implement a rule change of this scope.

Several analyses by academics and consumer advocates have questioned administration's claim of benefits to the public. An Aug. 7 report by Consumer Reports concluded that Trump's proposed rollback would cost consumers $460 billion between vehicle model years 2021 and 2035, an average of $3,300 more per vehicle, in car prices and gasoline purchases. It also found the rollback would increase the nation's oil consumption by 320 billion gallons.

"The numbers, public comments and real analysis are at odds with what the White House wants to do," said one career staff member at the EPA, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The White House official called the staff departures "irrelevant" and said that the rule was near completion. "It is a major change, so it does take time. What we are seeing now is that people who were opposed to the rule from the beginning, including some in the automotive industry, are starting to get nervous that our plan to make cars safer and more affordable is going to succeed."

Policy experts point out that Trump's quest to undo his predecessor's signature climate-change regulation despite opposition from the very industry being regulated is extraordinarily unusual. For automakers, they say, it makes more sense to try to remain globally competitive by building more sophisticated vehicles as the world market moves toward more efficient cars.

"I don't think there is any precedent for a major industry to say, 'We are prepared to have a stronger regulation,' and to have the White House say, 'No, we know better,'" said William K. Reilly, who headed the EPA in the first George Bush administration.