California looks for ways to preserve environmental clout

In eliminating California’s authority to set its own emission standards for cars and trucks, the Trump administration would take away leverage the state needs to convince the world’s largest automakers to make more environmentally friendly vehicles.

But one California lawmaker is already working on a way to preserve at least some of the state’s environmental muscle: rebates for electric cars.

California residents who buy or lease a zero-emission vehicle can get up to $7,000 from the state. A bill by Democratic Assemblyman Phil Ting would mean people could only get that money if they buy a car from a company that has agreed to follow California’s emission standards.

The proposal comes as the Trump administration on Wednesday announced it was revoking California’s authority to set its own auto emission standards — authority it has had for decades under a waiver from the federal Clean Air Act.

California has 35 million registered vehicles, giving it outsized influence with the auto industry. That heft was on display in July, when Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom announced four automakers — Ford, BMW, Honda and Volkswagen — agreed to follow California’s standards, bypassing the Trump administration, which had been working on new rules.

California officials have been negotiating with other automakers to follow suit, but those talks stalled Wednesday when Trump announced, via Twitter, that he was revoking California’s authority to set its own emission standards.

But Ting’s proposal, first reported by CalMatters, shows California has other ways it could entice automakers to follow its environmental lead. David Vogel, a professor emeritus of business ethics at the Haas School of Business of the University of California-Berkeley, noted California could accomplish its goals through various tax changes, which the federal government could not stop.

“Even if the Trump administration would win on this, California could use taxes to accomplish much of the same goals,” Vogel said. “The federal government would have less of an ability to challenge, because states can pretty much tax who they want.”

The California Legislature adjourned for the year last week. But before they left, they amended Assembly Bill 40 to include the new language so they could debate it when they return to work in January.

State officials could use the tactic to aid negotiations with Toyota and General Motors, two manufacturers that make electric cars but have so far not agreed to California’s emission standards. It’s unclear how effective the law would be as California’s Clean Vehicle Rebate Project has a waiting list.

A Toyota spokesman declined to comment.

Ting, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment. But he is scheduled to speak with reporters about the issue on Thursday.

Asked about the proposal on Wednesday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said he would make an announcement by Friday, but he did not elaborate.

In a tweet, Trump said his action to revoke California’s authority to set its own emission standards would result in less expensive, safer cars. He also predicted Americans would purchase more new cars, which would result in cleaner air as older models are taken off the roads.

“Many more cars will be produced under the new and uniform standard, meaning significantly more JOBS, JOBS, JOBS! Automakers should seize this opportunity because without this alternative to California, you will be out of business,” Trump tweeted.

U.S. automakers contend that without year-over-year increases in fuel efficiency that align with global market realities their vehicles could be less competitive, potentially resulting in job losses. However, most of the industry favors increases in standards that are less than the Obama-era requirements, saying their consumers are gravitating to SUVs and trucks rather than buying more efficient cars.

Top California officials and environmental groups pledged legal action on Wednesday to stop the rollback, potentially tying up the issue for years in federal courts. The U.S. transportation sector is the nation’s biggest single source of greenhouse gasses.

Trump’s claim that his proposal would result in a cleaner environment is contrary to his own administration’s estimate that by freezing economy standards, U.S. fuel consumption would increase by about 500,000 barrels per day, a 2% to 3% increase. Environmental groups predict even more fuel consumed, resulting in higher pollution.

The administration argues that lower-cost vehicles would allow more people to buy new ones that are safer, cutting roadway deaths by 12,700 lives through the 2029 model year. But The Associated Press reported last year that internal EPA emails show senior career officials privately questioned the administration’s calculations, saying the proposed freeze would actually modestly increase highway fatalities, by about 17 deaths annually.