WASHINGTON -- California's air pollution control boss says she's open to compromise with the Trump administration over its efforts to relax mileage standards, as the bitter standoff threatens to unleash years of court fights and confusion in the U.S. auto industry.
"Now we still have the Trump administration refusing to bend — but they could change their mind," Nichols said. "It's not too late."
Asked to comment on Nichols' remarks, White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement: "The Trump Administration believes strongly in a national fuel standard that promotes safer, cleaner, and more affordable vehicles. The Federal government, not a single state, should set this standard. We are moving forward to finalize a rule for the benefit of all Americans."
Twenty-three U.S. governors — most of them Democrats — signed a pledge Tuesday backing California in the mileage fight, saying a rigorous national standard requiring ever more fuel-efficient cars and light trucks is essential to curbing climate-damaging emissions.
The pledge by the governors says they "will not compromise on our responsibility to protect the health of our communities, our climate, and the savings consumers stand to gain at the pump." It promises "additional concrete actions to fulfill this duty and defend against any threats."
Besides California and Puerto Rico, the pledge was signed by the leaders of Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.
At issue is an administration plan to back off from Obama-era mileage standards that would require cars to get an average of 36 miles (58 kilometers) of real-world driving per gallon (3.8 liters) of gas by 2025. The Trump administration says it prefers to freeze the standards at 2021 levels, about 30 mpg, while California wants to keep them in place.
The auto industry contends that it will have trouble meeting those standards because people are buying less-efficient pickup trucks and SUVs and shunning electric and hybrid vehicles. An automakers' industry group on Tuesday renewed a call for compromise that results in one national standard increasing fuel economy but stops short of the Obama requirements.
The Trump administration argues that demanding ever-more fuel-efficient vehicles will drive up automobile costs and keep less-safe, older vehicles on the road longer. Many engineers have challenged that claim.
At a House committee hearing last month, Bill Wehrum, former assistant Environmental Protection Agency administrator for air regulation, said the agency followed directions from Trump to try to make a deal with California. But Trump also told the agency to finish the final regulations.
Trump's EPA and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are expected to send a final mileage rule to the White House's Office of Management and Budget in the coming weeks.
California, Nichols said, made offers to come up with standards somewhere between a complete freeze and the Obama-era regulations
For any compromise to happen, Nichols said the administration would have to drop its challenge to California's ability to set its own standards, a power granted by Congress in the Clean Air Act to combat the state's smog problems in the 1970s. The state at one time had more stringent standards than federal ones, but the two sides voluntarily synced their standards under Obama.
Nichols predicted that the nation is headed into a period where California will enforce its own standards, which will be tougher than those from the federal government. But she disputed the contention that auto companies would have to build two versions of each vehicle, one for California and states that follow its rules, and the other for the rest of the country. That's what happened decades ago when automakers added pollution control equipment to meet California standards.
"The idea that there will be chaos ... I think is exaggerated," she said.
Instead, companies would be able to comply with California's rules by sending more efficient vehicles, such as battery powered or gas-electric hybrids, to the state, she said
Nichols said California could be willing to go for something less than the Obama standards, but it would have to be coupled with other changes such as wider use of more efficient auto air conditioners that use chemicals that aren't as damaging to the atmosphere as those in use currently.
Krisher reported from Detroit.