Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, asked an excellent question of automakers the other day.
“What were you thinking when you threw yourselves upon the mercy of the Trump administration to try to solve your problems?” she asked those representing foreign and domestic carmakers.
We’re asking the same question, though there were no answers from the auto executives – who offered themselves up as Trump’s backdrop two weeks ago in Ypsilanti, Mich., where he announced plans to turn back the clock on emission and gas mileage standards.
Nichols, appointed by Jerry Brown, offered a similar, and similarly pointed, observation after Trump issued an executive order he promised would bring back the coal industry’s smudged, lung-killing old glory.
“While the rest of the world and many states are moving toward clean energy and good clean tech jobs, this move will set America’s economy back by at least a generation,” Nichols said.
Trump’s order to roll back the Obama administration’s directives in 10 areas, including requirements that power plants reduce greenhouse gas emissions, that the oil and gas industry limit methane emissions, and that they reduce the impact of fracking on groundwater.
“That is what this is all about: bringing back our jobs, bringing back our dreams and making America wealthy again,” Trump said at the EPA headquarters, using coal miners as a prop.
In reality, Trump’s order harkens to a time when the air was thick with smog. It’s not a time that Californians of a certain age remember fondly. Perhaps there will be some short-term gains in some coal states. But coal plants are mostly being shuttered because of fracking and higher natural gas production, not regulation. It cost far less to produce a unit of energy from natural gas than it does from coal.
And every year the cost of producing power from wind and the sun drops, making them better alternatives than coal.
The Trump administration has not yet tried to revoke California’s waiver to the federal Clean Air Act. Under the waiver, California can go beyond federal requirements as it tries to clear the air for the sake of our children. Some 12.5 percent of California’s kids suffer asthma, a rate half-again higher than other places in the nation. There are 15 other states, home to 130 million people, who follow California’s lead.
That special permission is in place until 2025, but EPA Director Scott Pruitt is exploring ways to unravel the waiver. The administration shouldn’t take that step, and not just because it would immediately result in litigation. By allowing greater pollution from vehicles – the No. 1 source of deadly emissions – Pruitt is endangering the lives of our children. We won’t stand for it.
Relying on research done in California, the Obama administration developed mileage standards requiring automakers’ fleets average 54.5 mpg by 2025. Meeting in Riverside last week, Nichols and the Air Resources Board reaffirmed those standards.
The board went further, pushing to accelerate the development of electric vehicles and get 4 million zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2030.
Ambitious? Perhaps. The market for SUVs and monster pickup trucks is expanding while the sales of cleaner cars is flat. Still, there are no fewer than 22 all-electric models are available today. They would not exist if California had not forced the issue. And upwardly mobile Americans now yearn more for Teslas than gas-guzzling Escalades.
Nichols is right to wonder what our president and automakers are thinking. Perhaps some people forget what smog looks like. But we haven’t.