Three Reasons California Is Trump’s Worst Nightmare in Clean-Car Fight

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump, much to the delight of Big Auto, wants to roll back the Obama-era regulations that require cars to burn gasoline more efficiently and run cleaner. Well, California regulators have a message for the president: Do it, and we’ll go it alone.

If this showdown over transportation emissions involved any other state, the federal government would probably come out on top. But it’s the Golden State, the one that stretches across most of the U.S. West Coast and has the GDP of a not-so-small country. (Think: United Kingdom-sized.)

Here are three reasons why, when it comes to fuel standards, California may be just as -- if not more -- important than the federal government.

1. Home of the Guzzlers

As much as California cherishes its image as the greenest and most environmentally conscious state, drivers burn through more gasoline there than anywhere else in America. It’s the curse of being a massive place with a lot of mileage to cover.

All told, Californians are guzzling over 1 million barrels of gasoline a day, more than some entire countries with populations four times as large. David Hackett, president of energy consultancy Stillwater Associates in Irvine, California, says the state’s dominance in the fuel market isn’t changing any time soon. California accounts for nearly half of all electric vehicles sold in the U.S., but the emission-free cars remain too pricey, even with generous state incentives, for drivers to switch from gasoline to batteries in very large numbers.

“Tesla – that’s a hell of a car – but it’s expensive,” Hackett said.

2. There’s a Reason L.A. Traffic’s a Thing

Given California’s enduring thirst for gasoline, it shouldn’t come as a complete surprise that the most cars in the U.S. are registered there, beating out even truck-loving Texas.

So it follows that the most populous state is also the biggest market for new cars. While growth in vehicle registrations is slowing, California still logs a whopping 2 million new cars a year. That’s 12 percent of the nation’s entire auto market. So even if the rest of the country decides it doesn’t care about fuel efficiency, California caring means carmakers need to care.

“California is just too big of a market to neglect,” said Jeremy Acevedo, manager of industry analysis at Edmunds, an automobile-research firm. 

3. And California Really, Really Cares

If there’s anyone who embodies the fight that California is willing to put up to defends it fuel standard, it’s Mary Nichols, the state’s top air-quality regulator. On Twitter Thursday, she proclaimed that California will not be “benched... we'll do whatever it takes.”

There’s a pretty sizeable reason she’s been unrelenting on the topic of curbing vehicle emissions: Almost 60 percent of the carbon dioxide spewed into California’s air comes from the transportation sector. If the state’s going to meet its goal of reducing emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, it needs to target the car industry head-on.

So get ready for a fight, Trump. This is one that California isn’t expecting to lose.

 

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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