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Auto industry to Trump: You're going the wrong way on emissions

The auto industry wanted Trump to roll back Obama-era standards, so he did. They had no idea how big the resulting mess would be.
Traffic moves north along Interstate 270, Nov. 24, 2010, in Clarksburg, Md., the day before the Thanksgiving Holiday. (Photo by Carolyn Kaster/AP)
Traffic moves north along Interstate 270, Nov. 24, 2010, in Clarksburg, Md., the day before the Thanksgiving Holiday.

In Barack Obama's first term, the administration came to a fairly obvious conclusion: to address the climate crisis, we're going to need to reduce emissions, and in the United States, the #1 source of carbon pollution is transportation. With that in mind, the Democratic White House created tough fuel-efficiency standards for the auto industry, to be phased in gradually.

Manufacturers, not surprisingly, weren't thrilled, but there was a broad realization that the policy, in conjunction with a series of related efforts, would make a positive difference.

Then Donald Trump got elected. Last summer, the Republican White House announced plans to roll back the tougher standards, making it easier for the automotive industry to sell less efficient vehicles that pollute more.

By way of a defense, the Trump administration said the new policy would improve auto safety -- which as we discussed at the time, makes about as much sense as it sounds.

Nevertheless, the Republican president assumed he was helping the industry at the expense of the environment -- a trade-off Trump was happy to make since he rejects climate science anyway. But the New York Times reports today on an unexpected twist: auto manufacturers believe the White House's anti-climate plans have gone too far.

The world's largest automakers warned President Trump on Thursday that one of his most sweeping deregulatory efforts -- his plan to weaken tailpipe pollution standards -- threatens to cut their profits and produce "untenable" instability in a crucial manufacturing sector.In a letter signed by 17 companies including Ford, General Motors, Toyota and Volvo, the automakers asked Mr. Trump to go back to the negotiating table on the planned rollback of one of President Barack Obama's signature policies to fight climate change.

The problem for the industry has become a practical one: Trump intends to go so far in gutting pollution safeguards that many states intend to enforce stricter emissions standards on their own.

That includes, naturally, California -- home to the nation's largest consumer base.

The result is an exceedingly messy economic dynamic, in which car manufacturers in the United States -- which had already begun taking steps to comply with the Obama-era policy -- will have to make different vehicles to sell in different parts of the country.

Not surprisingly, no one sees that as a sustainable business model.

The industry seems to realize this is a mess it helped create: companies wanted Trump to roll back Obama-era standards, so he did. What manufacturers didn't realize is (a) how far the Republican would go; and (b) what would happen if they got what they wanted.

Complicating matters, of course, there's a decent chance a Democrat will win the presidency next year, at which point he or she will likely abandon Trump's pro-pollution posture and go back to the auto industry with some thoughts about even more stringent emissions rules.

The industry wants the White House to negotiate some kind of deal with California, with the intention of creating a national standard that everyone can live with. That seems unlikely: Team Trump broke off talks with the Golden State months ago, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has rejected the idea of halfway measures.

Watch this space.