Tailpipe Wars: The Presidential Politics of U.S. Auto Emissions

Friday, May 1, 2020
by Ryan Warsing

By Ryan Warsing

Abstract

Despite growing consensus that climate change is real, manmade, and pernicious, the U.S. Congress has failed to update old laws – to say nothing of passing new ones – that might mitigate the crisis.  State governments have attempted to fill the void, with California setting de facto national policy using powers delegated under the 1970 Clean Air Act (CAA).  The Trump administration’s 2019 bid to revoke these powers rejects the process of “iterative federalism” and leads one to believe Trump’s agenda is both vindictive in nature and impervious to broad support for environmental regulation.  Yet this support (even in electorally pivotal states like Pennsylvania) proves a weak motivating factor next to the needs of vulnerable constituencies, notably autoworkers.  Trump’s agenda is rationally set by his need to attract support in states like Michigan where votes are precious and regulatory exposure is high.  Long a means for the federal government to enjoy environmental progress at a safe political distance, the “California carve-out” seems to have exhausted its utility with the Trump administration, which deems all environmental regulation anathema to growth and the happiness of its base.  Trump’s rationale is best understood using Conditional Pandering Theory (CPT), which predicts that presidents with middling approval numbers are apt to be led by the public as Election Day draws near and policy outcomes can be delayed.  In the case of emissions, policy outcomes are immaterial so long as targeted marginal voters deliver the president a second term.
 


Introduction

Americans are more concerned than ever about Earth’s changing climate, with a near record forty-five percent saying global warming will pose a serious threat within their lifetimes (Saad 2019).  Despite this anxiety, the U.S. federal government has done relatively little to deal with the problem.  The last time Congress passed new and significant air quality regulation was the Clean Air Act of 1970 (CAA), which was revised in 1990 to tackle ozone depletion and acid rain (“Evolution of the...” 2017).  Progress on climate change has proven far more elusive, as shown by the 2009 defeat of the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES), which would have established a carbon cap-and-trade scheme similar to Europe’s (H.R. 2454 2009).  With ACES abandoned, the decades-old CAA has provided the only real platform from which to advance air quality reform.

This beachhead has lately come under siege by the Trump EPA, which in September 2019 moved to revoke California’s special license, given by the CAA, to independently regulate mobile source (i.e. automotive) pollution.  While environmental advocates and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) denounced what they interpreted as a political potshot, the EPA maintained pure intentions, saying a shift to heavier cars would reduce auto fatalities, and that because California’s standards induced demand for smaller, less-safe vehicles, those standards had to be dismantled (Davenport 2018).  The president, meanwhile, justified his decision as a means of protecting American industrial jobs (Trump 2017).  California sued, arguing that its right to regulate local air quality was enshrined by the CAA and could not be so capriciously voided.  In the words of CARB Chairwoman Mary Nichols, the administration unfairly targeted California “because they don’t believe in the science of climate change – or because they want to punish us for taking action” (Barboza and Phillips 2019).

The administration is actively blocking states’ efforts to fight climate change, and not, as it claims, to reduce traffic fatalities.  Instead their actions play to an audience whose jobs and ways of life are in the vice grips of tightening regulation: autoworkers, especially those miles away in the swing state of Michigan.

This jurisdictional tug-of-war calls into question the nature of American federalism and its ability to produce coherent environmental policy – who decides how pollution is regulated?  The Constitution's interstate commerce clause ostensibly assigns this authority to the federal government, as automobiles and their emissions cross state borders all the time.  The Supreme Court has ruled, however, that states are entitled to impose upon interstate commerce in light of “local exigencies” and an “absence of the exercise of federal authority” (Eichholz v. PSCM).  The following analysis does not concern the strengths of California’s case, though it does take for granted both the exigent need for climate regulation and the undeniable absence of federal action; indeed, it takes for granted federal obstruction.  The administration is actively blocking states’ efforts to fight climate change, and not, as it claims, to reduce traffic fatalities.  Instead their actions play to an audience whose jobs and ways of life are in the vice grips of tightening regulation: autoworkers, especially those miles away in the swing state of Michigan.

With Election Day nearing and the president saddled with net-negative approval ratings (around forty-four percent as of this writing), Trump ought to be courting marginal voters and delaying contentious decisions he isn’t obligated to make (FiveThirtyEight 2020).  Princeton’s Brandice Canes-Wrone notes how presidents in Trump’s position are likeliest to “pander,” or to congrue with public opinion even when the public prefers suboptimal policy, when the effects of their policy will not materialize until after the next election (Canes-Wrone 2006, 122-123).  Here the logic of Trump’s decision becomes clearer: While the short-term results of his announcement have been a burst of media coverage and galvanized base support, the policy itself will not take effect until 2021, or perhaps later if California's lawsuit creates further delay (Davenport 2018).  Canes-Wrones’ Conditional Pandering Theory (CPT) thus would argue the president’s rollback is an electoral maneuver – Trump is gutting regulations not in spite of his need to pander, but rather because of it.  This analysis probes these motivations to explain why (and why now) the president has chosen to upend longstanding regulatory norms, and why he evidently fears no consequences for doing so.
 

The Rear-View: A History of Conflict

Even prior to the Trump administration, states and federal regulators did not always agree on emissions standards.  At the time the CAA was proposed, California had already built a robust system to regulate airborne hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter from diesel combustion; in other words, the ingredients of smog (“Clearing California Skies” 1998).  Led by then-Governor Ronald Reagan, who would come to oppose these regulations as president, a group of bipartisan political and industry leaders assailed Congress’s plans for a national emissions regime (Mihm 2019).  Their opposition was about sunk cost: California had invested heavily in smog research and the establishment of agencies like CARB – efforts which, Reagan believed, would have been for naught if his state was forced to abide a lower, common standard (Mihm 2019, “Clearing California Skies” 1998).  The final compromise gave California the unique ability to request waivers from the EPA, provided it had good reasons for doing so.  Over 100 such waivers have since been granted to little fanfare (Dennis 2018).

The “California carve-out” might resemble little more than naked politics – a concession made to buy approval from America’s largest state with the biggest auto market.  But the CAA’s California clause did far more than win votes – it laid the grounds for America’s contemporary, bifurcated regulatory system.  Although the CAA forbade other states from setting individual standards, it allowed them to set ones “identical, for the period concerned, to the California standards” (Clean Air Act 1970).  Thus, under current law, states can self-select into basic or advanced regulatory regimes, taking cues from either Washington or Sacramento, respectively.  Thirteen states and Washington, D.C. have joined California thus far (Map 1).  Together they comprise approximately a third of the U.S. population and forty percent of domestic auto sales – no small obstacle for manufacturers who would prefer regulations be consistent nationwide (“Tailpipe Emissions Standards” 2019). 

Map of tailpipe emission standards

Source: “Tailpipe Emission Standards.” American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, July 2019.

While manufacturers can technically spec multiple versions of each vehicle – one for California and one for “the rest” – doing so would be fairly senseless.  A car made to pass New Hampshire tests, for instance, would likely be unsellable in the surrounding states whose rules mirror California’s.  To simplify production and compete in the entire U.S. market, automakers have (sometimes begrudgingly) erred toward the stricter standard, giving California outsized influence over its peers: Catalytic converters, nitrous oxide controls, “check engine” systems, and more first appeared in California before they were standardized nationwide (Dennis 2018).  UCLA’s Ann Carlson labels this strategy “iterative federalism,” wherein Congress deputizes a state or regional actor to address an issue, triggering a “series of iterations adopted in turn” by higher and subordinate levels of government (Carlson 2008, 5).  Perhaps the idea was always for California to lead from behind, making de facto national policy in places where the national government was itself unwilling to tread. 

To simplify production and compete in the entire U.S. market, automakers have (sometimes begrudgingly) erred toward the stricter standard, giving California outsized influence over its peers: Catalytic converters, nitrous oxide controls, “check engine” systems, and more first appeared in California before they were standardized nationwide. 

On the other hand, Congress might well have misjudged the degree to which California’s stricter regulations would take hold in other states – one exception made fifty years ago has since become the national default.  Stakes were raised under Arnold Schwarzenegger, the first in a line of governors to pursue an expansive interpretation of California's CAA powers, looking beyond smog to address global warming more generally.  These governors’ mission to regulate carbon dioxide has created new turbulence between their state and the federal government.  The Bush administration denied Schwarzenegger’s waiver request in 2007, although a subsequent Supreme Court victory and support from the newly elected Obama administration ensured its ultimate approval (Dennis 2018, Massachusetts v. EPA). Federal opposition renewed in earnest under President Trump, whose choice to revoke California’s waiver is now the subject of legal dispute.  Consequences of that dispute will spill far beyond California and its cohort of “deep blue” states the president has no electoral reason to accommodate.
 

 Pennsylvania: The Opposition

The primary obstacle to durable environmental policy is, as Douglas Arnold notes, the reality of diffuse rewards versus narrow costs (Arnold 1990, 5, 14-15).  Environmental reform yields widespread benefits that resist credit-claiming – how can a president stamp his name on a half-degree reduction in global temperatures?  Costs, meanwhile, fall disproportionately on certain industries (auto manufacturing, mining, gas drilling, etc.) and geographic areas (“Coal Country,” Detroit, etc.) whose support the president might need.  While Arnold obviously had Congress in mind when he wrote his seminal Logic of Congressional Action, his model applies to presidents, too.  A first-term president prioritizes reelection over all else and bases decisions on what future voters will most likely support (Arnold 1990, 5).  Though voters may not reward new environmental regulations, the president could do worse by dismantling old ones: With roughly two-thirds of Americans “somewhat” or “very” worried about climate change, Arnold’s logic says the president should respect their popular opinion (Leiserowitz, et al 2019, 4).

Indeed, these policies are popular, and not just in liberal enclaves like California.  Yale’s Program on Climate Change Communication has recorded widespread support for regulation in Pennsylvania, the only state to have both adopted California’s emissions rules and voted for President Trump in the 2016 election.  Fifty-six percent of Pennsylvanians want their governor to do more to fight global warming and seventy-three percent favor regulating CO2 specifically (“Yale Climate Opinion Maps 2019”).  Seventy percent say environmental protection is more important than economic growth – a rebuttal to deregulation proponents like Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, who in a joint statement titled “Make Cars Great Again” argued California’s regulations “impose significant costs on American consumers and eliminate jobs” (Davenport 2018).  Consumer prices and jobs being two major determinants of growth, polls suggest that even if the administration’s claims were valid, voters in the swing state of Pennsylvania would prefer protections to stay in place.

To be sure, support for environmental protection is as high or higher in the other twelve states that share California’s emissions standards, but as those states are out of reach in 2020, Trump has little incentive to solicit their support. 

To be sure, support for environmental protection is as high or higher in the other twelve states that share California’s emissions standards, but as those states are out of reach in 2020, Trump has little incentive to solicit their support.  Assuming both that Pennsylvania will again be a pivotal contest, and that Pennsylvanians would like to preserve the emissions regime they have maintained since 1998, why would Trump choose now to undercut a constituency whose votes he needs?  Perhaps Pennsylvania is just an unfortunate casualty of the administration's well-considered regulatory purge, in which case the president is taking a calculated risk by leading in the face of public disapproval.  Alternatively, the administration might think Pennsylvanians won’t really oppose the rollback, and that, to quote Arnold, while the feud with California will be highly “visible,” no “perceptible effects” from the dispute will actually take root in Pennsylvanians’ daily lives (Arnold 1990, 48).  As far as Trump might be concerned, what voters don’t feel can’t hurt them.

This dismissal would not be unwarranted.  While voters are increasingly agitated about climate change, a closer look shows other issues normally take priority.  In Gallup’s first Most Important Problem [1] survey of 2020, a slim four percent reported “Environment, Pollution, and Climate Change” were their biggest concerns (Gallup, February 2020).  More immediate issues like race relations and health care routinely outrank climate change, supporting the extensive body of behavioral science research ascribing climate disinterest to, among other factors, the human tendency to discount future threats (Weber 2020).  It would thus be naïve to assume Americans even understand the EPA’s recent waiver decision, let alone its implications for their local emissions regulations and the degree to which any rule changes will come to affect the air they breathe.  While most Americans might be superficially united in their concern for their environment, this technical milieu is likely lost in translation for all but the most tuned-in environmental voters.

Also, while regulation might poll favorably, UCLA’s John Zaller cautions “most of what gets measured as public opinion does not exist except in the presence of a pollster.”  In other words, Americans’ true attitudes might not be as firm nor as stable as polling suggests (Zaller 1992, 265).  This is especially true considering how rarely Americans even discuss the issue of climate change.  In the same Yale survey, two-thirds of Pennsylvanians report they “rarely or never” converse on the subject, yet in the presence of professional pollsters can somehow form cogent opinions about solar rebates, carbon taxes, and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (“Yale Climate Opinion Maps 2019”).  Whether respondents answer randomly or say “yes” to be polite, the president is likely correct to call their bluff.  Absent immediate threats from climate change, Americans’ actions, if not their opinions, will most likely reflect those of trusted elites.  Trump therefore has reason to believe his sway over voters will override what lukewarm positions they hold on niche issues like mobile source CO2.

While most Americans might be superficially united in their concern for their environment, this technical milieu is likely lost in translation for all but the most tuned-in environmental voters.

Moreover, if Americans’ support for environmental protection is soft in general, among registered Republicans it is downright tissue thin: only sixteen percent of Republicans are “true believers,” Gallup’s term for people who believe global warming is real, will affect them in their lifetimes, stems from human activity, and receives accurate coverage in the mainstream media (Saad 2019).  As a result, most Republicans would have likely met Trump’s decision to revoke California’s waiver with indifference, if not approval.  Today’s California belongs not to Ronald Reagan or Richard Nixon, after all, but to Republican foils like Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff whose humiliation the party might widely celebrate.  Even those environmentally-conscious Republicans in Pennsylvania might value the opportunity to irritate California over preserving the details of their own emissions regime – a form of self-sabotage which, given Republicans’ steady and overwhelming support of the president, is not wholly out of the question (Gallup, March 2020).


Michigan: The Prize

If, as the Pennsylvania case suggests, there is no popular constituency strong enough to discourage the president’s emissions policies, what resistance is there among elites?  Auto sales are big business, after all, and executives have much to lose from the government’s pursuit of a risky policy.  In June 2019, CEOs from seventeen automakers – including U.S. companies Ford and General Motors – wrote to President Trump urging him not to abandon President Obama’s emissions rules which had been brokered between their industry and California.  The Obama plan was too strict, they said, but at least it provided regulatory consistency across the entire country (Davenport 2019).  The signatories rightly predicted that an abrupt departure from the rules would incite protracted legal challenges, which in turn would cause instability and lower industry profits.  This strange-bedfellows defense of California’s authority failed to satisfy the president, who formalized his rollback just a few months later.

With the president’s choice made and California’s lawsuit on the way, the automakers’ united front began to crumble.  Several companies, including Hyundai, Fiat Chrysler, Toyota, and (in a sharp reversal) General Motors came out in support of the administration’s decision (Shepardson 2019).  In the opposite corner from this “Coalition for Sustainable Automotive Regulation” was a second group of automakers – BMW, Ford, Honda, and Volkswagen – who each negotiated independent agreements with California.  By the numbers, it isn’t obvious why these “teams” divided as they did.  Compliance records from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) show some of the more efficient companies actually sided with the administration, like Toyota, Nissan, and Subaru – all of whom posted positive emissions credit balances in MY2017. [2]  While Fiat Chrysler posted the lowest credit balance (as might be expected from a company seeking regulatory leniency), the next-lowest were posted by Ford and Volkswagen, both of whom acceded to the California-directed regime (“Manufacturer Fuel Economy...” 2019).

In Michigan, which in 2016 voted for President Trump by only 0.3 percent, GM, Ford, and Fiat Chrysler purport to employ more than 28,000 in assembly plants alone, with thousands more in engine factories, stamping plants, and adjacent industries like parts distribution.

Perhaps one-time opponents like GM reasoned the president was determined to thrash California’s standards regardless of what the industry thought; they couldn’t beat him, so they joined him.  Irrespective of where they landed on California’s lawsuit, Detroit’s “Big Three” all have reason to fear a ratcheting-up of efficiency requirements.  EPA data shows they have the worst fleetwide fuel economies among mainstream automakers in the United States: 21.1 MPG for Fiat Chrysler and 22.9 MPG for both Ford and GM (“2018 Automotive Trends Report,” 9).  These figures fall short of the industry average 24.9 MPG and well short of the 29.4 MPG called for by the Obama administration’s rules (Laing 2019).  What’s more, hundreds of thousands of their vehicles are built in Michigan, Ohio, and Georgia – all likely 2020 battlegrounds.  In Michigan, which in 2016 voted for President Trump by only 0.3 percent, GM, Ford, and Fiat Chrysler purport to employ more than 28,000 in assembly plants alone, with thousands more in engine factories, stamping plants, and adjacent industries like parts distribution (Map 2).

Auto assembly workers by state, in thousands

Source: Automaker factory websites.

In addition to employing the most workers, Michigan factories also produce some of the most inefficient vehicles on the market (Chart 1):

US Auto Production, 2019

Source: "2019 US Auto Sales by Model Analysis." Good Car Bad Car, 2019, 2019 US Auto Sales by Model Analysis; "FCA US Reports Third-Quarter 2019 Sales." FCA North America, 2019, FCA US Reports Third-Quarter 2019 Sales; "Third Quarter Sales 2019." Ford Motor Company, 2019, Third Quarter Sales 2019.
 

Of the fifteen mass-market vehicles assembled in Michigan (excluding the all-electric Chevrolet Bolt), fourteen post an average model-line economy (AMLE [3]) below 29.4 MPG, the fleetwide average called for by Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards.  Only the Chevrolet Sonic ekes a passing 29.5 MPG, with all other Michigan-built models acting as dead weight on their parent companies’ performance (see Appendix 1).  To improve averages, companies must choose among costly options: investing to boost fleetwide efficiency, increasing fuel-efficient vehicle production beyond market demand, and cutting vehicles whose inefficiency hampers compliance.  All present tradeoffs, but the third would likely be most painful for workers whose jobs are often tied to the production of certain vehicles.  

Michigan, and to a lesser extent, Indiana, would feel this pain most acutely.  This point is illustrated in Map 3, where each state is assigned an “exposure score” based on combined city-highway EPA observations for all locally-assembled vehicles.  By subtracting the number of vehicles with AMLEs below 29.4 MPG, the current benchmark, from the number of vehicles that meet or exceed it, one can simultaneously view which states produce the most vehicles, and the net efficiency (or inefficiency) of each state’s production:

Figure 3 shows exposure levels across the US.

Exposure = (number of locally built autos passing current standards) – (number of locally-built autos failing current standards)

Sources: "2019 US Auto Sales by Model Analysis." Good Car Bad Car, 2019, 2019 US Auto Sales by Model Analysis; "FCA US Reports Third-Quarter 2019 Sales." FCA North America, 2019, FCA US Reports Third-Quarter 2019 Sales; "Third Quarter Sales 2019." Ford Motor Company, 2019, Third Quarter Sales 2019; Automaker factory websites.

Unlike their CEOs, whose concerns are global, rather than parochial, autoworkers cannot be so agnostic as to where vehicles are built.  Trump’s devout allegiance to autoworkers contradicts one prevailing view that, given a dispute pitting a wealthy few against the masses, the wealthy will always prevail (Gilens 2012, 81).  Rather than the more limited California standard executives initially sought, the President has sought a clean break from the Obama administration and the strongest possible show of solidarity with workers in Dearborn, Lansing, and Flint, whose votes will outnumber those of their bosses come November.

Taken together, the Michigan and Pennsylvania examples serve to illustrate the nuances of presidential pandering.  Though it may seem like the president is flouting popular opinion in order to pursue his dogmatic regulatory agenda – a strategy Canes-Wrones’ CPT would find incredible, given Trump’s less-than-dominant standing in polls – the president is pandering, just to a niche audience of marginal swing voters.  It may be risky for the president to maintain such a limited focus, but it is neither irrational nor inconsistent with the models of presidential behavior put forth by Arnold and Canes-Wrone.  Aware that he could again win the Electoral College and not the popular vote, Trump is already campaigning fiercely in Michigan, claiming the restoration of domestic auto manufacturing was "maybe the single biggest reason I ran for president” (Livengood 2020).  Better for Trump to risk upsetting a few high-information voters in Pennsylvania than having to explain why thousands of Michigan autoworkers won’t last the decade in their current jobs.


California: The Partner

Unlike current emissions policies which cater to a narrow public in a single swing state, the original CAA passed as an act of general interest policy innovation.  In dividing governance between states and the federal bureaucracy, the CAA bred competition between public and private actors alike.  In this multidimensional “survival of the fittest,” some companies were creatively destroyed, and the auto industry as a whole was forced to rapidly evolve.  A similar dynamic gripped the airline industry in the deregulation years of the late 1970s.  Writes Brown University’s Eric Patashnik:

The airline deregulation case demonstrates that policy reform is a dynamic process in which outcomes are never completely settled.  The collapse of many larger carriers, the rise and possible fall of the hub-and-spoke system, the reconfiguration of the industry – these and many other developments were not predicted, or predictable, at the time of reform enactment.  Deregulation has stuck in the face of these surprising events not because market competition has delivered only benefits – although most citizens are better-off – but because key private actors were forced to accommodate themselves to the new regime (Patashnik 2008, 134).  

While airline deregulation led market forces to align against the government’s artificial ceiling on competition, in California, they aligned against an artificial floor.  By permitting California, a particularly capable and ambitious state, to go its own way on emissions regulation, the CAA set in motion a virtuous cycle that defines the industry still today.

That some automakers continue to support stringent regulations affirms the CAA’s role in inspiring protective and durable interest groups.  This was far from the case back in 1970, when Ford CEO Lee Iacocca testified the CAA would do “irreparable harm to the American economy” and American Motors warned it would liquidate if the bill became law (Cooke 2017, 13).  While Ford has thrived in a post-CAA landscape, American Motors made good on its vow to shutter, following in the footsteps of bygone airlines like TWA and Braniff.  To head off new federal regulation, surviving automakers ironically lobbied for state-by-state regimes – that is, until New York and Pennsylvania proposed standards even higher than California’s (then, as now, the highest in the country) (Cooke 2917, 12).  Around this time, Honda began developing and profiting from the license of engines that surpassed Congressional targets, proving that progress was both possible and lucrative (Cooke 2017, 13).  Defeated, the surviving holdouts opted for a seat at the table, accepting the realities of regulation and working with Washington (now California) to minimize burdens on their industry.

As the president panders for votes, only electoral pressures could reshape his administration’s evident distaste for environmental protection.

Carlson notes how centralized regulatory systems like the Trump proposal often limit creative experimentation, whereas total decentralization can generate chaos and a “race to the bottom.”  Also, state governments often rely on incomplete or contradictory information, and would compete clumsily if left entirely to their own devices (Carlson 2008, 61).  The current, two-pronged system splits the difference: By designating only one state the “super-regulator,” Congress ensured a) the formation of economies that revolve around California’s ability to set policy, b) the concentration of expertise, and c) the expectation that California leads where the EPA does not.  Positive feedback has strengthened this arrangement over time and produced a vocal constituency that now demands California take a leading role defending the environment (Carlson 2008, 39).  Novel as this all may be, these vocal Californians are unlikely to influence the president short of moving to Michigan or persuading like-minded Pennsylvanians to make more noise.  As the president panders for votes, only electoral pressures could reshape his administration’s evident distaste for environmental protection.

If Trump secretly harbored worries about climate change, or even a remote appreciation for California’s position, he might have met the California carve-out with relief, not contempt – so long as the onus of decision making lies with California, not the White House, the president spares himself the need to whip fellow Republicans into supporting costly reform.  This kind of self-limitation, or “hand-tying,” is often used during legislative debates to prevent excessive amendments from drowning general interest reform (Patashnik 2008, 24).  The CAA used an original kind of hand-tying whereby lawmakers restrained themselves not just during the passage of a law, but over that law’s entire life.  As a result, leaders nominally worried about the climate could rail against California’s overreach, then complain of tied hands when asked to intervene.  Ronald Reagan, for example, could joke to an assembly of Youngstown steelworkers that Mount St. Helens erupted more pollution than ten years of auto emissions, and that the 1970 rules (which he supported) only helped to “force factories to shut down and cost workers their jobs” (Omang 1980).  Despite his rhetoric, Reagan’s EPA would go on to grant California 38 waivers to impose stricter regulations (“Vehicle Emissions...” 2020).

It is worth remembering that California and other densely populated (i.e. Democratic) states have the highest emissions standards because they have the highest emissions, and that harsh federal standards would fall hardest on their heads. 

But as the focus of environmental regulation has shifted from blatant industrial abuse to more personal consumption habits (like driving inefficient vehicles), even nominal support for regulation is rarely expressed among elected Republicans.  The modern Republican Party looks very different than it did in the 1970s, when the Nixon EPA used California’s status to bludgeon the state into living up to its own lofty standards.  California’s sluggish place in executing its CAA-mandated State Implementation Plans (SIPs) pushed the EPA so far as to propose a total ban on gas-powered cars from Los Angeles’ roads – a ban it would later reverse (Carlson 2008, 34-35).  If Trump’s goal was merely to bully California, the more proven strategy would have been to follow Nixon’s lead and turn the state’s privileges against itself  – or better yet to raise federal air quality standards such that California suffered most of all.  It is worth remembering that California and other densely populated (i.e. Democratic) states have the highest emissions standards because they have the highest emissions, and that harsh federal standards would fall hardest on their heads.  

Rather than pulling these levers, the Trump administration has opted to discard them entirely, relinquishing powers that prior presidents have used to great effect.  This reinforces the notion that Trump and his advisors simply have no interest in environmental reform – not even reform that comes at California’s expense.  Their tactics more convincingly prove Trump is picking a fight for a reason and not just, in the words of Mary Nichols, to “punish” her state.  While California’s pain might come as a welcome incidental, the administration’s true purpose is to please constituents elsewhere.  Though California may protest in court, it might ultimately be forced to concede its powers were born of federal law and are thus subject to federal whims.  The state must then decide whether to negotiate new terms with the Trump administration, or, assuming Trump is uninterested in negotiation and seeks only root-and-branch destruction of their regime, whether to go down swinging in pursuit of a lost cause.

By requiring the state to seek an EPA waiver every time it wanted to change policies, the CAA came with built-in checks and balances that, while perhaps needed for passage, now offer regular veto opportunities to presidents who want to set alternative regulations, or who want to make a political point.

Unlike general-interest reforms such as airline deregulation that were self-sustaining, California’s emissions regime has always necessitated some level of maintenance; indeed, California’s Achilles’ heel has always been its need to ask permission.  By requiring the state to seek an EPA waiver every time it wanted to change policies, the CAA came with built-in checks and balances that, while perhaps needed for passage, now offer regular veto opportunities to presidents who want to set alternative regulations, or who want to make a political point.  Only now has the law met a president whose personal beliefs and political self-interest combine to seek California’s suppression, come what may for the industry surrounding it.  If California is ultimately rescued not by the courts, but by a Democratic administration more supportive of its ambitions, it would do well to remember that “iterative” federalism happens in twos, and that one partner cannot get too far ahead of the other.


The Road Ahead

A cursory look through the polling data supports two notions: that most voters regret the desperate state of Earth’s climate but are relatively unmoved to act on it.  While Americans largely agree the air needs better stewardship, they are not likely to discuss or understand the issue as much as more salient, news-grabbing alternatives – the coronavirus, for example.  The voters likeliest to have strong opinions on emissions standards are those with livelihoods most affected by them: autoworkers, whose numbers are concentrated in states where the president needs to remain popular.  The unique vulnerability of these workers and their importance in 2020 demands a blitz of presidential pandering – one that Trump has delivered:  “During the campaign, I came to Michigan again and again, and I made this promise that I am going to fight for your jobs,” Trump told a crowd of Willow Run autoworkers in 2017.  “If [emissions] standards threatened auto jobs, then common sense changes could have and should have been made” (Trump 2017).  

A cursory look through the polling data supports two notions: that most voters regret the desperate state of Earth’s climate but are relatively unmoved to act on it. 

Ironically, in implementing these common sense changes, the EPA came to discover its plan was, essentially, unworkable.  Even after revising its original proposal in response to legal skepticism and the accumulated nerves of industry executives, the EPA’s current and final plan admits that while cars should become cheaper under its new rules, the costs of fuel inefficiency might more than offset lower sticker prices and end up costing consumers more overall.  Even worse, the EPA projected the auto industry could hemorrhage jobs if inefficient American cars and trucks cannot be sold abroad in markets like China and the E.U. where standards are only expected to increase (Phillips 2020).  In the wake of these revelations, Volvo announced it was negotiating a new agreement with California, whose standards would "serve as a national path forward” (Shepardson 2020).  The administration has vowed to press on in spite of these new developments, and in doing so has revealed the extent to which consumer relief and “American jobs” were really just pretenses for the accumulation of votes.

The EPA’s report again serves to underscore how inconsequential policy results actually are in this context.  Even in the face of information showing the audience of Trump’s pandering will likely suffer, perhaps greatly, under the plan he supposedly made in their interest, the fact remains that material changes will not appear until 2021 when the window for these workers to vote their revenge will have already shut.  It looks increasingly possible that should Trump win reelection, his plans for emissions deregulation will disappear from the agenda altogether, or at least be diluted to the point where they no longer resemble their original, provocative form.  All that matters in the short-term is that the administration’s political message is well-received by voters he needs to win: “Never mind the details, just understand the president is fighting for you.”  The optics outweigh the substance in the president’s pitch to the workers of Michigan, and in other key states where regulatory exposure is, as the data compiled in this analysis has shown, empirically very large.

Michigan’s centrality in a debate between the EPA and California speaks volumes about America’s electoral system. 

Michigan’s centrality in a debate between the EPA and California speaks volumes about America’s electoral system.  Although this analysis was never intended to critique the Electoral College, one can imagine how things would change if Michigan was less of a battleground state, or if its workers built more fuel-efficient cars.  Adopting a popular vote system, as many have called for, would alter the president’s calculus completely.  In this setting, the president would feel less incentive to pander specifically to Michigan, and more incentive to follow national polls which show wide (though again, not deep) support for emissions regulation.  Subsequent studies might be beneficial on this subject.  Until they are completed, and under the system as it now exists, emissions standards are destined to remain a relevant but complex issue – one that, given voters’ general ignorance on the subject, the president has enormous leeway to spin in his favor.


About the Author

Ryan Warsing is a Master in Public Affairs candidate at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, where he focuses on environmental issues and U.S. domestic politics. He would like to thank his JPIA editors, Markus Prior, Ben Hammond, and Zachary Tillman for their contributions to this project. Ryan can be reached at rwarsing@princeton.edu.


Notes

1. The MIP survey does not guide respondents using multiple choice or sliding-scale questions, but instead records verbatim answers that better reflect true beliefs.

2. The NHTSA allocates credits through the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) program.  Credits are earned when an automaker exceeds national fuel efficiency standards.  Credits can be carried forward or back within a manufacturer’s fleet to offset shortfalls in past or future model years.  Manufacturers may also trade credits between themselves.

3. In this analysis, AMLE is calculated across all variants of a model – including hybrids and performance variants – using EPA testing data from 2019.  For example, in 2019 the EPA tested twelve variants of the Nissan Rogue whose combined highway fuel economies ranged from 27 to 34 MPG, with an AMLE of 29.7 MPG.  All-electric variants were excluded from analysis, as were exclusively electric vehicles like the Tesla Model S.


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Appendix 1: Gas-Powered Vehicles Manufactured in the United States

chartchart

* For the purposes of Chart 1/Map 3, sales for these vehicles were split evenly between multiple states of assembly. Red indicates mileage below the CAFE standard 29.4 MPG.  Green indicates mileage above the standard.