A huge battle is brewing between the state of California and the rest of America over who gets to decree national fuel economy standards that have morphed into something more. It’d be nice if car buyers got to decide through their purchases, but that’s off the table.
On the upside, President Trump walked back the pending federal fatwa that would have required all new cars to average 50-plus miles per gallon (MPG) by 2025, citing compliance costs and even (heresy!) questioning whether the government has any business fatwa’ing fuel efficiency requirements in the first place.
California responded with foot-stomping threats to issue its own counter-fatwa, which would impose the 50-plus MPG mandatory minimum on all new cars sold within its boundaries. If it does so, it would have the effect of making California the boss of the rest of us, because the car industry can no longer afford to build one set of cars for California and another for the rest of the country. Thus, what a handful of bureaucrats in the California apparat decree threatens to bind the whole country.
California has had its own, much stricter, emissions standards since the 1970s, when a bureaucracy called the California Air Resources Board (CARB) came into being. Initially, the car industry responded by building “California” and “49 state” cars. The “California cars” were built for the California market and had more emissions control rigmarole than “49 state” cars (and sometimes less performance, or less of other things).
For example, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Chevy was only able to sell Corvettes with the smaller 5.0-liter engine automatic transmissions in California. Buyers in the rest of the country could still get a Corvette with the larger 5.7 liter V8 and a manual transmission.
The problem is obvious. Building two versions of the same car gets into money. The car companies could theoretically tell California to bug off and just stop selling cars in that market. But California is a huge market, and over the past several years other states have leashed themselves to California’s stricter-than-federal fatwas.
So rather than tell California to bug off, as it ought to have done 30 years ago, the car industry has decided to side with it. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the lobbying entity that represents most of the majors, including GM, Ford, Toyota, Mazda, VW/Audi, Mercedes-Benz and BMW, issued a statement earlier this year urging Trump to “reach an agreement” with California that amounts to acceding to its demands.
What’s really interesting, though, is that this isn’t just a power grab. It’s a semantics grab, which will ultimately lead to a car grab.
CARB has had power to regulate emissions with the state of California since the ’70s. But not fuel economy. That has always been a federal fief. Fuel economy has also never been considered an emissions issue until recently, chiefly because it isn’t — not by any historical or even chemical standard.
“Emissions” used to refer, in regulatory lingo, specifically and exclusively to things harmful to air quality — i.e., things that caused or contributed to smog or acid rain or that were harmful to human physiology. These things included byproducts of incomplete combustion, fuel vapors, oxides of nitrogen, particulates, and so on.
“Emissions” — in terms of what was subject to regulation on that basis — never included carbon dioxide, for the entirely sound reason that C02 plays no role whatsoever in smog formation, doesn’t cause acid rain and presents no threat to anyone’s physiology.
Somehow regulatory lingo began to subtly, then very aggressively shift. Fuel economy began to be spoken of in terms synonymous with emissions, and carbon dioxide suddenly morphed from a harmless, inert gas into an “emission” and thus very much subject to regulation. The media began to say the same words, repetition serving as its own Duck-speak argument. The car industry quacked in, too — buying the lingo that will eventually seal its doom.
There is no way to “clean” (chemically scrub) these “emissions.” The only thing that can be done to curb or even reduce them is to burn less gas. That ultimately means smaller or fewer cars, or mostly electric cars, which is a problem because most people can’t afford them, in addition to their functional problems.
At any rate, you now know the real reason for the sudden mania displayed by the car companies to get as many electric cars in the pipeline as possible. EVs are considered by the regulatory apparat to be “zero emissions,” even though their manufacture and use results in plenty of carbon dioxide “emissions.” And you also know the reason for the car industry’s acquiescence the demands of California and CARB. They have invested heavily in EVs, even if there’s no real market for them.
If Trump breaks California’s regulatory power — if there is no national 50-plus-MPG fatwa, no “zero emissions” car quotas — it will mean not just a lot of loss-eating, but also the potential loss of car companies that can’t afford to eat the losses. That’s why they are so eager for the rest of the country to eat the losses instead.