EPA Chief Says Agency, California ‘Far Apart’ on Car Emissions

(Bloomberg) -- U.S. and California officials agreed Monday on one thing about auto emissions standards: they’re still miles from an agreement, with a crucial deadline just two months away.

In separate comments, Sacramento and Washington’s top environmental regulators said they’ve yet to overcome a long-running impasse over the Trump administration’s proposal to cap auto emissions and fuel economy standards after 2020 and strip California of its authority to regulate tailpipe carbon dioxide emissions.

“We certainly hope to have a 50-state solution but at the end of the day we have to move forward with regulation,” Environmental Protection Agency Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler told Bloomberg Television in an interview Monday, saying the agency and the state remain “pretty far apart” on the issue. “California is an important player -- an important part of this -- but this is not a two-sided negotiation for a national standard.”

After briefly meeting with Wheeler in San Francisco on Monday, California Air Resources Board Chairman Mary Nichols said the two sides remain at odds over the proposal and that a fundamental philosophical disagreement exists over the federal proposal to unwind California’s power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from autos.

Legal Disagreement

“That disagreement may turn into a legal disagreement at some point,” Nichols said during remarks at the BloombergNEF Summit San Francisco. “I think it’s also correct to say that we have some reason to hope that we could possibly reach a resolution, not so much because I think we’re going to change their minds through the force of our arguments, as that the auto industry itself has made it very clear that they don’t want this fight. ”

The dueling statements highlight the standoff between the Trump administration and California officials over fuel economy and tailpipe carbon emissions standards for automobiles, one of former President Barack Obama’s signature policies to ward off climate change.

Wheeler said he would prefer to reach a deal with California, but said the state shouldn’t be able to dictate the requirements. The EPA and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have already proposed stripping California of its authority to set its own tailpipe greenhouse gas emission limits for new cars and trucks, a potent bargaining chip to extract concessions from the largest state for U.S. auto sales.

California’s Waiver

In the interview, Wheeler said California should not have that authority.

“That’s why we would love to have a 50-state solution so we wouldn’t have to pull that trigger,” Wheeler said.

He dismissed an earlier counteroffer by California to extend the timeline of the existing requirements, saying it would not lower vehicle prices and improve road safety enough.

The dispute began last August, when the EPA and NHTSA proposed capping efficiency standards at a roughly 37-mile-per-gallon fleet average from 2020 through 2026 -- instead of allowing them to rise to almost 50 miles per gallon by 2025 under the existing rules written by the Obama administration.

“But we do have some hard deadlines,” he said, adding “and we are pretty far apart.”

Wheeler gave no hint of a middle ground before his meeting with Nichols. The administration argues that freezing future fuel economy increases after 2020 would cut car prices and encourage more people to buy newer, safer and cleaner cars.

Nichols dismissed the thrust of the EPA and NHTSA’s argument.

“The analysis doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “It’s just a flat-out a bad argument and they should give it up.”

Wheeler said the administration must finalize the requirements by early April.

California officials, he said, are focusing only on energy efficiency, an indication that the state is prioritizing reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. But Wheeler argued that the impact of California’s rules -- which are followed by at least 12 other states -- on greenhouse gas emissions is “negligible.”

Wheeler also distanced himself from President Donald Trump’s repeated suggestions that cold winter weather undermines arguments the planet is warming.

As brutal cold gripped much of the country last week, Trump tweeted that it “wouldn’t be bad to have a little of that good old fashioned global warming right now.” Climate scientists said Trump’s tweet conflated weather -- what’s happening now -- and climate, or weather patterns over longer time periods.

“I don’t think you can look at any one weather event and determine whether the planet is warming or cooling,” Wheeler said. “I think you have to look at the models overall over a number of years, and you can’t just focus on one particular weather event.”

Asked if that meant Trump’s conclusion might be flawed, Wheeler was quick to clarify he wasn’t correcting his boss.

“Now, I didn’t say that,” Wheeler said. “There’s a lot more variability in the climate models and the climate data than most people realize, and I think the president is reflecting on that.”

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