There’s a small footnote in the chapters of history being written on Capitol Hill this week: One of President Donald Trump’s signature reforms—to subvert California’s right to set its own emissions standards—now seems like scribbles in the margin on the pages of his administration's legacy.
For the electric-car industry, drivers, and fans that should be good news.
Since taking office, Trump’s crosshairs were set on Obama-era regulations for fuel-efficiency standards, with collateral damage to the fledgling electric-car market. Since last year, proponents of cleaner cars and environmentalists held their collective breaths to see what EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler could finally propose for nationwide standards and whether California would heel to them or sue in federal court.
The administration attempted to gut emissions standards and California revolted.
Even bystanders became aware of the sea-change for cars and electric cars—a report last month by Consumer Reports calculated that proposed fuel-economy freezes would cost consumers roughly $460 billion in lost fuel-cost savings.
Now, with an administration in turmoil, those proposals take a back seat in the political steamroller marching toward potentially unprecedented actions, toward impeachment.
Impeachment is inherently a political argument and procedure. Unfortunately, the debate over climate change has become political, too. Although reams of scientific evidence prove otherwise, the current administration and ruling political party in the White House and Senate largely dispute facts and science.
Drawn across party lines instead of rooted in scientific evidence, that split has stymied electric-car development, research, and ultimately, cars on the road. Automakers have planned comprehensive electrification strategies for the North American car market, and have put down billion-dollar markers on those strategies, all to meet a demand that would have been aided by clear-headed climate policy.
If the current plan to de-fang California’s emissions rules succeeds, it could ultimately mean the U.S.-based automakers will become second-tier manufacturers in the global view. Although the rest of the world—and many global automakers—has pushed toward an electric-car transition, the U.S. market has fragmented. Meanwhile, China and Europe will continue to press for electrification, by government and in Europe’s case by popular mandate.
Impeaching and removing President Trump would create a path toward stability for the auto industry and for potential growth for electric-car manufacturing in the U.S.
Historical implications for the future administration ahead aside, it’s hard to imagine how Trump’s White House and GOP would find enough political capital to push forward a proposal that will be tied up in courts for years. Any remaining administration after impeachment and any removal of administrators may make for a lame-duck White House until 2020, which could shape up to be a referendum on Trump rather than issues at hand. If impeachment proceeds to a trial in the Senate, 53 Republican senators would be wise to run for cover instead of defending to the end a divided policy shift that doesn’t rise to the day. Likewise, the Republican party could write off any hope of recovering any electoral chances in states that have pushed ahead with California-style regulations, from Colorado to New Mexico—California itself being a complete write-off.
While impeachment proceedings grind away, there are two possible futures for the case against Trump’s policy. In one scenario, the case against the president occupies all attention and blots out any daylight for nuanced policy decisions such as the one vexing California. In the other, the administration presses on—challenged by a dozen states, their attorneys-general, and a handful of forward-thinking automakers pleading for regulatory stability as the rest of the world pivots toward an electrified future.
So far, the EPA’s pending final proposal for fuel-economy standards only has one champion, and that’s an administration heading into a slugfest with Congress over its very existence. If that administration fails, its policies go with it. That could allow the electrification movement the momentum it desperately needs. That could, in the end, save electric cars in North America.