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New twist in the Trump-California auto fight

Illustration of two cars with varying bumper stickers arguing for or against carbon emissions and mileage rules
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Trump administration could soon move to revoke California's authority to set vehicle pollution rules that are tougher than federal standards, per multiple reports Thursday.

Why it matters: It’s the next phase in the high-stakes battle between the White House and California over carbon emissions and mileage rules and a key part of the wider White House effort to freeze Obama-era standards, rather than allowing them to get significantly tougher through the mid-2020s.

  • Officials could "move within the next few days" on the vehicle pollution rules, The Wall Street Journal reports.

The intrigue: Right now California has a Clean Air Act waiver to set emissions rules (which are largely a proxy for mileage standards) that roughly a dozen other states follow.

  • The administration has previously proposed yanking California's waiver as part of the complicated — and unfinished — rulemaking to roll back Obama-era mandates.
  • Now, per The New York Times, Bloomberg and others, officials may decouple those plans and move against California's 2009 waiver first.

What we don't know: Why exactly the administration is reportedly separating the waiver revocation from the rule to freeze the Obama-era standards. Possibilities...

  • Timing: The NYT reports the regulation to freeze the standards is "bogged down" as the administration has struggled to document "legal, technical, economic and scientific justifications."
  • Legal strategy: The WSJ notes it could "insulate" the waiver revocation from the standards changes in case the latter are successfully challenged in court.
  • Persuasion: Former Obama aide Jody Freeman tells Bloombergthe White House wants to dissuade more automakers from joining 4 companies — Ford, Honda, VW and BMW — that recently struck a deal with California on increasing standards for their nationwide vehicles.
  • Freeman, now a Harvard law professor, said President Trump is "saying to the auto companies: ‘California has no legal authority in our opinion, so it can’t threaten to set its own standards, so you don’t need to make a deal.' "

The big picture: Automakers have chafed at Obama's rules, arguing they're too strict.

  • They backed Trump's move to weaken them to some degree, but then Trump went much too far for their liking.
  • Now they're desperate to avoid a split U.S. market, with one set of rules for California and a dozen other states and weaker federal standards that others follow.

But, but, but: The White House tells Axios' Alayna Treene that it's "moving forward to finalize" rules that set a "realistic and transparent fuel economy standard," and that "suggestion otherwise is false."