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California Wants a Say as Trump and Car Makers Talk New Mileage Rules

California officials, long advocates of tougher clean-air rules, say they have been sidelined from recent talks between the Trump administration and auto makers that are angling for relief from stringent fuel-economy standards.


Mike Spector

California officials, long advocates of demanding clean-air regulations, say they have been sidelined from a series of discussions in recent months between the Trump administration and auto makers that are angling for relief from stringent fuel-economy standards.

The Golden State’s clean-air officials hold considerable sway in setting emissions standards requiring auto makers to sell vehicles that get increasingly better mileage. California holds an Environmental Protection Agency waiver that allows the state to set its own tougher regulations that many other states follow.

California’s Air Resources Board and other state officials were dismayed when the Trump administration reopened a review of standards earlier this year, and have vowed to fight changes. Since then, they have openly wondered when they will join discussions about possible revisions. A Trump administration official contacted CARB Chair Mary Nichols on Monday to discuss inclusion of the agency in future talks, a person familiar with the matter said.

Auto makers want to tweak current regulations while keeping California on board, lest they face conflicting standards across state lines.

California’s rule makers were influential architects behind the regulations currently on the books, agreeing to a single national standard that called for ambitious targets on reducing emissions and reliance on gasoline. They also want to spur electric-vehicle sales. CARB spokesman David Clegern had no immediate comment on the call to Ms. Nichols. He has said that the agency had “not been involved in discussions” aimed at rethinking U.S. rules.

California’s initial absence from discussions could add to consternation among state officials as the Trump administration and auto-industry representatives seek their agreement on possible changes to current regulations. Gov. Jerry Brown in March called the administration’s decision to reopen the emissions review “an unconscionable gift to polluters.”

The EPA review was undertaken with the Transportation Department as a way to analyze the feasibility of regulations first set in 2012 and reaffirmed in January by the Obama administration, just before President Donald Trump’s inauguration.

Those regulations, governing emissions and often expressed in mileage terms, expect auto makers to sell vehicles averaging roughly 50.8 miles a gallon, or 36 mpg in real-world driving, by 2025. The review faces an April deadline, affecting regulations set for as soon as 2021.

Getting California’s buy-in is crucial as it and other states adopting its standards represent roughly 40% of the U.S. car market. New York’s attorney general and other top state law-enforcement officials wrote to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt earlier this year vowing to take the agency to court if U.S. standards are weakened. California lawmakers earlier this year enlisted former Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder to fight potential legal battles.

Representatives of car companies have attended at least a dozen meetings with either White House or EPA officials in Washington to discuss their concerns with the current rules, said people familiar with the matter. The Trump administration decided to hear from individual auto makers on compliance plans before approaching California officials to start a second phase of the discussions, one of the people said.

The plan was to get a handle on auto makers’ concerns first before hearing from California officials and the intention wasn’t to freeze the state out, this person said.

Some auto makers are eager for California to join the discussion in the hopes of reaching a deal, some people said.

An EPA spokeswoman said technical staffs at both agencies have met. “We are happy to meet with any and all interested stakeholders, including states,” she said.

Auto makers, which lobbied the Trump administration to reopen a so-called midterm evaluation of standards, contend future targets are lofty amid cheap gasoline that is spurring demand for pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles. Sales of electric cars are less than 1% of total U.S. industry sales.

“A lot has changed since 2012,” said Julia Rege, environment and energy director at Global Automakers, a Washington lobbying group representing foreign auto makers with U.S. operations, during an EPA hearing this month.

California and other states, meanwhile, want to keep the current targets, which the EPA previously said would cut oil consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions while saving consumers $92 billion at the fuel pump.

“It would be irrational and irresponsible to rollback these affordable, achievable and common-sense vehicle-emissions standards,” said Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, among those who wrote to the EPA’s Mr. Pruitt earlier this year. She said transportation accounts for more than half of Maine’s carbon-dioxide emissions, and that the state has among the U.S.’s highest asthma rates.

CARB says there are also economic consequences to consider.

“If EPA were to expand their midterm evaluation to include model year 2021 or weaken any of their greenhouse gas standards as a result of this reconsideration, not only would California need to remove itself from the national program, but it would also hurt the U.S. economy as the rest of the world gets off its dependence on oil,” said CARB emissions-compliance official Annette Hebert during the EPA hearing in Washington.

Despite opposition to current U.S. rules, car companies are investing billions of dollars in electric vehicles partly to address international regulations. Volvo Car Corp. recently said it would soon phase out internal combustion engines, the mainstay fossil-fuel-powered technology that some countries are now looking at banning in favor of electric-powered vehicles.

During an August automotive conference in northern Michigan, Ms. Hebert said her agency hadn’t received a call to discuss the reopened review. Mitch Bainwol, head of a Washington lobbying group representing a dozen auto makers, told her to stay by the phone.

Auto makers contend complying with current standards will ultimately cost $200 billion and potentially threaten jobs due to dampened sales tied to more expensive vehicles needed to meet regulations.

—John D. Stoll contributed to this article.

Write to Mike Spector at mike.spector@wsj.com