Rancor in the White House over the move by four automakers to strike a side deal with California over emissions and fuel-economy rules looks likely to further delay President Trump's plans to roll back the Obama-era standards.

That's the conclusion of a report Tuesday in The New York Times, which cited four people familiar with the talks. After BMW, Ford, Honda, and Volkswagen signed an agreement with California to continue selling cars in the state that would exceed new, more lax standards proposed by the Trump administration, the White House summoned executives from General Motors, Fiat Chrysler, and Toyota to pressure them to support the President's rollback proposal, the Times reported.

Even amid that effort, Mercedes-Benz laid plans to join the California side deal, two people familiar with the company's plans told the Times. An unnamed sixth automaker was also planning to join the deal, the Times reported.

Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board—the state's top clean air regulator who manages the California program—told the Times, "Many companies have told us—more than one or two—that they would sign up to the agreement as soon as they felt free to do so."

 

The agreement would allow automakers more flexibility in time frames than existing joint standards do.

Continuing to sell more efficient cars in the face of lower standards could allow automakers to accumulate federal emissions credits that would make it easier for them to meet any future standards and in some cases avoid potential fines for failing to meet the standards. 

It's all—almost—enough to get a tough Commander in Chief to throw in the towel. In one meeting, according to three inside sources cited in the report, President Trump even proposed scrapping his own plan, which would leave the Obama administration's steadily increasing fuel-economy standards in place.

Rolling back those fuel-economy increases—and revoking California's long-standing right to set its own standards which other states can also follow—has been a signature part of Trump's efforts to roll back emissions regulations aimed at limiting climate change.

Last August, the administration introduced the Safe Affordable Fuel-Efficient vehicles rule, which would cap planned increases in fuel-economy and emissions standards at 2020 levels through 2026—well after any second term for this President would expire.

Mary Nichols, chief, California Air Resources Board

Mary Nichols, chief, California Air Resources Board

The previous standards were expected to require all new cars sold by 2025 to average more than 50 mpg—a number that would require significant sales of electric cars to be sold nationwide. (Even those standards, however, were less strict than the latest standards going into effect in Europe.) The increases were negotiated with California, in conjunction with all three Detroit automakers, the EPA and NHTSA.

The agreement was worked out in more than 1,200 pages of scientific analysis that the Trump administration is still working to rebut in sufficient scientific and technical analysis required to implement a new rule change.

In the midst of this turmoil, three senior political officials working on the proposal have resigned, and one career official with years of experience in the issue was transferred to another department, leaving a 29-year-old former aide to Vice President Pence, with little experience in the issue, in charge of working out the new rule.

The rollback—and particularly efforts to rescind California's right to set standards that help the state mitigate its unique smog problems—have resulted in lawsuits against the federal government filed by at least 17 states. If the Trump proposal passes, those lawsuits are likely to linger in courts for years, creating even less unity and more uncertainty for automakers.

Last spring, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler told Reuters that he expected the new rule to be finalized sometime after Labor Day. Now that timeframe is looking likely to roll back even farther on one of President Trump's signature efforts.