WASHINGTON — The world’s auto companies are fast learning how risky it can be to seek a favor from President Donald Trump.
They asked the president to nudge California and the rest of the country toward looser fuel economy rules. What they got instead was a veritable declaration of war against the state, threatening to destabilize the industry, tarnish its public image, and leave the companies tangled in years of litigation.
On Friday, the top executives of the companies trekked to the White House in an effort to wrest back some control of the policy initiative they set in motion. It had been hijacked by the anti-regulatory crusaders within the administration pushing for a rollback far more aggressive than the car makers ever planned.
The car companies politely suggested to the president that an assault on California’s long-standing authority to set its own emissions rules is actually not something that helps them.
The executives left their meeting with Trump feeling a little less unsettled than when they entered. The president, according to several people briefed on the discussion, heard them out and directed his agencies to hold their fire. Negotiate with California, Trump is said to have told Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao and Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
For the uninitiated, it seemed a ceasefire had been reached. But Trump has uttered similarly soothing words in other summits with executives, only to back away from them later. What happens next is anybody’s guess.
The car companies “opened up a Pandora’s Box when asked for these fuel economy standards to be loosened around edges,” said Ann Carlson, an environmental law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. “What they did instead is unleash this anti-regulatory monster, and a process that has been driven entirely by antipathy toward regulations.”
California leaders are reacting cautiously to news that Washington now wants to negotiate in earnest. They have been rattled by the administration’s plan to revoke California’s long-standing authority to enforce its own, tough rules on tailpipe emissions. A draft blueprint would force California and every other state to abandon the goal of getting cars and SUVs to average 55 miles per gallon by 2025. Instead, the targets would stall out at under 42 miles per gallon in 2020, and stay there through 2026.
State officials have already sued to stop the administration. The rollback Washington envisions would cripple California’s ability to meet its air quality and climate action goals.
It is not just California bristling at the aggressive posture. Another 17 states have joined its lawsuit, most of them part of a coalition that embraces California’s emissions standards, as federal law allows.
The auto companies are well aware that if the administration forges ahead with freezing the targets — and trying to force California to go along — the result will likely be years of litigation between the states and the federal government, and prolonged uncertainty for the companies.
The outcome could be a national standard that is radically different from the one followed by California and the states allied with it, which account for 37 percent of all vehicles sold. The companies are eager to keep the targets uniform nationwide, as they want to be able to sell the same cars in all 50 states.
The Auto Alliance and Global Automakers, the leading auto industry groups, said in a statement following the White House meeting that they expect the administration to issue “a range of proposals for future fuel economy and greenhouse gas regulations” for consideration by industry, the states, environmentalists and others. But they also signaled the administration would be engaging in a “discussion with California on an expedited basis.”