Holiday traffic
Heavy traffic on a Southern California freeway. Photo courtesy California Highway Patrol

By Dan Walters | CALmatters Columnist

Whatever his other talents may be — if he has any — Donald Trump excels at pulling the chains of California’s politicians.

He and others in his presidential administration delight in doing and saying things that elicit Pavlovian expressions of outrage on the left coast of the continent.

Many are just throwaway remarks, but some are serious challenges to California’s insistence on going its own way.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has filed dozens of lawsuits against the Trump administration, and he’s ready to file another, this time in conjunction with 19 other states, over the Trumpies’ plans to cancel an Obama administration decree on raising average auto mileage from 35 miles per gallon to 54 mpg by 2025.

Not only does the Environmental Protection Agency propose to freeze the 35 mpg standard, but also end California’s decades-long “waiver” that allows it to set its own rules to fight smog and climate change.

While federal law generally gives Washington sole authority to set auto pollution standards, it also allows California to impose tighter rules if there are “compelling and extraordinary conditions.” The impending legal battle will focus on that phrase and whether waivers, once granted, can be withdrawn.

The Obama-era 54 mpg mark was part of a 2013 “grand bargain” between the feds, California and the auto industry, which wanted one national standard rather than having to comply with rules set by California and followed by 13 other states.

However, the industry later complained that 54 mpg was unworkable because, with gas prices relatively low, American motorists wanted to buy larger, less fuel-efficient cars and were shunning the electric and hybrid cars that would bring down overall fuel consumption.

Dan Walters

The industry sought a new three-way deal but California resisted and threatened to exercise its waiver to force automakers to comply with the Obama standard even if it was relaxed for states that were not part of its 14-state coalition.

Without a compromise, Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency moved this month to freeze the 35-mile-per-gallon by 2025 goal and declared that California’s waiver would be withdrawn — going beyond what automakers had sought.

Gov. Jerry Brown, who has made climate change his legacy cause, led the chorus of outrage.

“For Trump to now destroy a law first enacted at the request of Ronald Reagan five decades ago is a betrayal and an assault on the health of Americans everywhere,” Brown declared. “Under his reckless scheme, motorists will pay more at the pump, get worse gas mileage and breathe dirtier air. California will fight this stupidity in every conceivable way possible.”

The outcome could have a major impact on California’s very ambitious plans to curb carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. It has already achieved its 2020 goal of cutting emissions to 1990 levels, but wants even larger reductions by 2030 and beyond.

California currently emits about 10 tons of carbon per capita, and while that’s relatively low, it would have to drop to 3 tons, we’ve been told, to avoid further atmospheric damage.

The lowest-hanging fruit – such as requiring utilities to use more solar and wind power — is already being picked, and California can’t meet its goals without aggressively attacking its largest single carbon emission source, 30-plus million gasoline- and diesel-fueled vehicles.

The California Air Resources Board has pressured automakers to sell more “zero-emission vehicles.” But ZEVs still represent a tiny fraction of California’s cars and consumers aren’t clamoring to buy the huge numbers the state seeks, even with hefty subsidies.

If the freeze on the 35 mpg standard is upheld, it reduces pressure on automakers even more.

CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to