A Tesla on the assembly line at the company’s factory in Fremont in the Bay Area. Courtesy Tesla

The Trump administration’s fight with California over auto pollution rules escalated Tuesday with news that the Environmental Protection Agency is threatening to withhold highway funding.

The EPA wants to freeze vehicle efficiency standards at 37 miles per gallon in 2021, well below the 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 set by the Obama administration, but California is fighting for more stringent rules to help clean the state’s air.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler told state officials in a letter that the Trump administration could withhold billions of dollars in highway funding because of high pollution levels in California.

“Since the 1970s, California has failed to carry out its most basic tasks under the Clean Air Act. California has the worst air quality in the United States,” Wheeler wrote in the letter first reported by the Sacramento Bee.

Wheeler, a former coal industry lawyer, did not explain how less stringent auto emissions standards would lead to cleaner air.

California has sought a compromise of 50 miles per gallon by 2026, and four major automakers — Ford, Volkswagen, Honda and BMW — agreed to honor it. Trump’s Justice Department then announced an antitrust investigation into the deal.

The EPA’s rollback is based on a safety argument, not environmental concerns. The agency has argued that allowing more-polluting cars will increase highway safety because they are less expensive and therefore Americans will replace their vehicles more often.

In retaliation for California’s effort to keep higher standards, the EPA last week revoked the waiver California has relied on for roughly 50 years to set the higher standards.

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Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.