A Hot, Smoggy Pickup-Truck Capital Opens Trump Tailpipe Debate

To test how Americans feel about its plan for rolling back car and truck pollution standards, the Trump administration kicked off an initial public hearing on Monday in Fresno, California, a place where it might reasonably expect a friendly response.

Fresno lies in the Central Valley, California’s farm belt, where people drive pickups more out of necessity than fashion and where, according to the California New Car Dealers Association, the share of zero-emission and hybrid new-vehicle sales account for less than half what they do in San Francisco. Fresno is also represented in Washington by Congressman Devin Nunes, a Donald Trump loyalist who once described climate change as nonsense.

“The Central Valley supported Trump over Hillary Clinton and its auto dealers have been plaintiffs in cases challenging California’s emissions standards,” said Ann Carlson, a University of California at Los Angeles law professor. “This is ironic because the auto standards Trump wants to repeal would go along way toward cleaning up the valley’s air pollution.”

Fresno also happens to be the fourth most ozone-polluted city in the U.S., according to the American Lung Association, and in July experienced a record 22 straight days with 100 degree-plus high temperatures.

It’s that type of paradox on climate change that environmentalists planned to highlight for regulators at the first of three public hearings Monday on the administration’s plans. Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposed freezing fuel efficiency requirements for autos at 37 miles per gallon in 2020 instead of rising to 47 mpg by 2025 under Obama-era regulations. This would cap emission standards, too.

Representative Devin Nunes, a Republican from California, arrives for a House Republican conference meeting at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S. Photographer: Aaron P. Bernstein/Bloomberg
12 Hours

The hearing was scheduled to last twelve hours or until anyone who’s in line gets a chance to comment. Each speech was limited to three minutes. Speakers included electric car advocates, environmentalists and representatives of religious and minority organizations.

The agencies will hold similar hearings Tuesday in Dearborn, Michigan, and on Wednesday in Pittsburgh. They expect to complete their amended rules by early next year.

As the activists lined up to speak, California leaders were actively pursuing the idea of compromise with Trump. The state has formally linked its tailpipe standards to the federal government’s since 2009.

U.S. automakers testified that they hope this link will continue, since the alternative could be years of litigation and a patchwork of standards that vary from state to state.

“We urge the EPA and NHTSA to continue to work with all stakeholders, including California, to develop a lasting rule that enables manufacturers to plan and build a single fleet of vehicles for the U.S.,” said Steve Douglas, senior director of energy and the environment for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

Dan Sperling, a member of the California Air Resources Board, said he hopes to preserve this link, too, since it helps the state to defend its programs and to influence national policy. “Some compromise will be necessary,’’ he said.

At a San Francisco climate conference last week, Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board, said administration officials have reached out to her in good faith to negotiate over the proposed rollback. She said she’s responding in kind but not unconditionally.

Nichols said she’d refused to negotiate on the state’s zero-emission vehicle mandate, but made no mention of talks over greenhouse-gas standards themselves. She said she had refused to bargain as long as the Trump team maintained its claim that only the federal government, and not California or any other state, can regulate tailpipe emissions. At that point, she said, the Trump people nodded and kept on talking.

Representatives of NHTSA didn’t respond to emails before the hearing seeking comment on its location or the ongoing negotiations.

Polarizing Postures

Monday’s hearing wasn’t a time for talks, but, rather for posturing that indicates how polarized the debate has become. More than a dozen protesters greeted speakers as the hearing began. Holding signs like one that read, “EPA go away, leave the electric car alone”, they chanted, “What do we want, clean cars! When do we want them, now!”

“What the administration has proposed is so aggressive it’s hard to see how they can walk it back and find common ground with California now,’’ said Sean Donahue, a Washington environmental lawyer, in an interview prior to the hearing.

Donahue said he planned to attack the administration’s claim that by slowing the pace at which new vehicles get more expensive, the rollback will save lives by helping people replace older and less-safe cars more rapidly. “They’re using unprecedented arguments to take a 180-degree turn from what these same agencies were saying a couple years ago,’’ he said.

In her remarks, Nichols also attacked the administration’s claim that since the rollback will force Americans to spend more at the gas pump, they’ll drive less, and therefore, experience fewer accidents. “These claims are not only absurd on their face; they are not supported by fact,” Nichols said.

In a conference call with reporters Friday, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said the state has no choice but to defend and strengthen its pollution standards. The Los Angeles area recently completed 87 consecutive days of excessive smog, the longest stretch in 20 years, he said. Today he added that one in four children in the state’s San Joaquin Valley have asthma. “Stopping us from protecting our people, our jobs, our economy or our planet, it’s like trying to prevent a mother from protecting her child,” he said.

Shared Pessimism

On the pro-Trump side, Thomas Pyle was equally pessimistic about compromise, and equally convinced his view would prevail in court.

“The ideology of Mary Nichols is very clear: She views the internal combustion engine as the enemy of the planet,’’ said Pyle, president of the American Energy Alliance in Washington. “I can’t imagine her negotiating with Trump and then standing on a podium to declare victory.’’

In her remarks, Nichols described the Trump rollback as a “recipe for disaster” because it would fuel what the administration expects to be a near doubling in the current amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. CO2 would rise to just short of an “astonishing” level of 800 parts per million under administration projections, she said. “Already, California is on fire and confronting drought and rising seas,” Nichols said.

In a recent regulatory filing, California described itself as “an independent co-regulator for the light-duty vehicle industry.” A dozen other states, which together with California constitute about a third of the U.S. vehicle market, have adopted tailpipe emission rules that mirror Sacramento’s.

On the Friday conference call, Governor Dannel Malloy said Connecticut needs pollution standards that mirror California’s partly because it’s located downwind from the Midwest industrial heartland. “When the air gets here, it’s already polluted,” he said. “And now the EPA wants to take away one of the tools we can use to offset that pollution.

“One thing we should start doing in this country is naming hurricanes after car companies and car models,” Malloy said. “That might bring home to people how much pollution comes from automobiles, and how much damage is being done.”

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