GM Abandons Trump Effort to Quash California Vehicle Emissions Standards

Morning rush hour traffic makes its way along U.S. 101 near downtown Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)

(CN) — Seeking points with the incoming Biden administration, General Motors announced Monday it was “committed to an all-electric future” and will abandon President Donald Trump’s effort to erase California’s longstanding ability to strictly regulate tailpipe emissions.

In a letter to the nation’s most influential environmental groups, GM said it was switching course and withdrawing from the Trump administration’s legal battles over the linchpin of California’s ability to limit smog and meet ambitious climate change goals.

Last year, GM followed Toyota, Fiat Chrysler and others by intervening on behalf of the president in federal lawsuits filed by California and a coalition of other states and environmental groups.

GM’s about-face comes following repeated promises by President-elect Joe Biden for a federal commitment to boost electric vehicle production and create new green jobs through his “Build Back Better” plan.

“We believe the ambitious goals of the President-elect, California and General Motors are aligned to address climate change by drastically reducing automobile emissions,” said GM CEO Mary Barra in the letter. “We are confident that the Biden administration, California and the U.S. auto industry, which supports 10.3 million jobs, can collaboratively find the pathway that will deliver an all-electric future.”

The Trump administration stunned state officials and environmentalists in August 2018 when it proposed rolling back Obama-era vehicle emissions and fuel economy standards that were intended to nearly double passenger vehicle fuel economy and halve carbon emissions by 2025. Trump claimed the move would lead to a rush of “less expensive cars” and be a boon for consumers and workers.

California and the over dozen states that have adopted the rules requiring automakers to produce cleaner, more efficient standards than federal law requires countered the move was heavy-handed and would reverse decades of improvements in the fight against smog.

The White House did not immediately respond to a comment regarding GM’s letter.

After the rollback was finalized, California predictably responded with a pair of federal lawsuits that have been joined by 22 other states. The states argue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lacks the authority to revoke a waiver intended to improve air pollution in the first place.

Instead of waiting for rulings in the lawsuits pending in the District of Columbia, California has been proactive in securing commitments from other automakers to continue producing clean cars even if the state’s waiver is revoked.

Last summer, the California Air Resources Board announced that Ford, Honda, Volkswagen Group of America, Volvo and BMW of North America voluntarily agreed to uphold the state’s stringent clean air goals regardless of whether the courts side with the Trump administration. For their cooperation, the air resources board will give the companies more time to meet the regulations, which require gradual reductions in tailpipe emissions, along with credits for producing electric vehicles.  

Watching many of its largest competitors line up with California as well as pressure from environmentalists wasn’t enough to convince GM to drop its support for the rollback, but Trump’s defeat three weeks ago apparently was. 

Barra claims GM is suddenly inspired by California and Biden’s push for clean cars, and to prove it the automaker will spend $27 billion to develop 30 new electric vehicle options by 2025. Furthermore, Barra says GM is not just ditching Trump but also courting its competitors to also join the “race for electrification.”

“To better foster the necessary dialogue, we are immediately withdrawing from the preemption litigation and inviting other automakers to join us,” the letter states.

Environmental groups fighting in and out of court to protect California’s waiver and air quality said they were glad GM succumbed to public pressure but are nonetheless unsatisfied.

“The work of these activists will protect the health, safety, and pocketbooks of American families and ensure that communities across the nation can breathe cleaner air,” said the Sierra Club in a statement.

The Center for Biological Diversity, which is one of the letter’s addressees, demanded Toyota and others still aligned with the Trump administration quickly follow suit.

“GM tried to prevent California from protecting its people from tailpipe pollution: they were wrong,” said Dan Becker, director of the center’s Safe Climate Transport Campaign. “Now the other auto companies must follow GM and withdraw support from Trump’s attack on clean cars.”

In an email, EPA spokesperson James Hewitt said, “It’s always interesting to see the changing positions of U.S. corporations.” The California Air Resources Board declined to comment.

A total of 896,000 personal cars were sold in California during 2018, the most of any state, followed by Texas and Florida. The Golden State is known for the various ambitious clean air goals set by recent governors, including mandates to drastically reduce greenhouse emissions and transition fully to renewable energy.

GM’s flip-flip also comes two months after California Governor Gavin Newsom declared the state would outlaw the sale of new gas and diesel cars starting in 2035. During his press conference, Newsom cast cars as a prime opportunity for automakers to take advantage of the state’s lucrative market and its switch to clean cars.

“One thing we know: the trends are in the direction of zero-emissions vehicles,” Newsom said, noting countries like China, India, Germany and the United Kingdom have enacted clean car goals. “If you are an American manufacturer, how can you compete globally?”

Reacting to GM’s change of heart, Newsom said, “GM’s acknowledgment of the reality that the future is zero emissions is further confirmation that it is time to move toward clean cars. I hope that GM will join the ranks of other forward-looking carmakers who stand against President Trump’s attack on clean air through clean cars.”

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