Updated: 12:45 p.m.
Ellen Knickmeyer and Tom Krishner, Associated Press
(AP) — The Trump administration broke off vehicle mileage standards talks with California on Thursday, moving the two closer to a possible court battle that threatens to unsettle the auto industry.
The White House said in a statement that the administration, which wants to freeze mileage standards, would now move unilaterally to "finalize a rule later this year with the goal of promoting safer, cleaner, and more affordable vehicles."
California officials and the Trump administration each accused the other of failing to present any good compromise proposal in the mileage dispute, which comes as President Donald Trump feuds with the Democrat-led state over his proposed border wall and his threats to take back federal money.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statement responding to the administration's response on Thursday morning.
"President Trump is now targeting clean, breathable air for kids across America in his quest to punish California," Newsom said in the statement. "The science is clear — increased fuel standards save children's lives, and even automakers have lobbied to preserve our stronger air standards. If the Trump Administration follows through on it's threat, the only winners will be fossil fuel companies, and those profits will come at the expense of our children's health."
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra also weighed in on the decision.
“Walking away from negotiations is sadly consistent with the Trump Administration’s retreat from our nation’s existing Clean Car Standards," Becerra said. "Abandoning ship on the U.S.’s serious push to tackle pollution is another sign of impotence and fallibility, something Americans aren’t accustomed to. California and states throughout America are prepared to defend our national Clean Car Standards even if the Trump Administration intends to go AWOL."
Becerra and Newsom both sparred with the Trump administration earlier this week over the president's declaration of a national emergency to secure funding for a border wall.
The administration announced last year it wanted to freeze what would have been tougher, Obama-era mileage standards for cars and light trucks. It would be one of a series of rollbacks targeting Obama administration efforts against pollution and climate change.
Under the administration proposal, the standards would be frozen after slightly tougher 2020 levels go into effect, eliminating 10 miles per gallon of improvement to a fleet average of 36 miles per gallon in 2025.
As part of the proposed mileage freeze, the administration threatened to revoke California's legal authority to set its own, tougher mileage standards, a waiver granted that state decades ago to help it deal with its punishing smog. About a dozen states follow California's mileage standards.
Dan Sperling with the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis said that the regulation the administration wants to role back is "the most important climate policy that California has and that the nation has."
"This is action is completely out of alignment with the rest of the world," Sperling said. "Every major car market has aggressive vehicle standards in place and is implementing them. Europe is about to adopt much more aggressive standards for 2030."
Lawmakers and automakers have urged the two sides to settle, warning that a split could divide the auto market, bring years of court battles and raise costs for automakers.
John Bozzella with the Association of Global Automakers said that the group was disappointed that state and federal authorities were not able to reach an agreement, adding that they are concerned that the failure will not benefit the association's economic and environmental goals.
"We continue to believe there is a middle ground solution that supports the goals of the Administration, state of California, as well as automakers," Bozzella said. "This middle ground would ensure innovation and investment in the U.S. auto industry, provide year-over-year efficiency improvements and account for the needs
California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols also expressed dismay at the inability of the two sides to find a consensus.
“It is unfortunate that the Trump administration has chosen to put an end to any effort to find common ground — but it is a signal to us to stand our ground and resolutely defend standards that clean the air we breathe, fight climate change and provide certainty to carmakers in a global market moving inexorably toward cleaner, more efficient cars," she said. "We know – and the Trump administration knows – that the technology to meet effective standards is readily available. Despite our best efforts to suggest ways the current rules could be updated to give more flexibility and reduce compliance costs, the Trump Administration continues with standards that fly in the face of science, logic and any effort to protect public health.”
The American Lung Association also expressed disappointment at the development.
"The federal government walking away from proven strategies to protect public health is unacceptable and unwarranted,” said William Barrett, Director of Clean Air Advocacy for the American Lung Association in California.
“By severing basic dialogue with the California Air Resources Board, the federal government has again signaled its unwillingness to consider the widely understood and documented public health impacts of harmful air pollutants, including those that contribute to climate change. In order to protect the health of our air, our environment and our communities, the American Lung Association is opposed to the rollback of our existing clean vehicle standards, and the attack on California and other states’ authority to protect the health of their citizens.”
It's the latest shot by the White House in its escalating feud with California. The Trump administration earlier in the week said it planned to cancel nearly $1 billion for California's high-speed rail project and would seek the return of $2.5 billion more. Newsom said it was political retribution for the state's role in leading a 16-state lawsuit against Trump's declaration of a national emergency to get funds for his proposed wall at the southern border.
Since it takes several years to design vehicles, automakers have been planning to meet higher mileage requirements under Obama-era standards, as well as those in other countries.
For now, "essentially the industry is ignoring what Trump wants to do," auto-industry analyst Sam Abuelsamid of Navigant Research said. "We know at least until this thing gets settled in the courts, we have to deal with California and the other states and have product that can sell there as well as products that can sell overseas."
Kathleen Ronayne & CapRadio's Ezra David Romero contributed to this report.
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