The long fight over fuel economy standards for cars and trucks about to enter a new phase as President-elect Joe Biden readies to take office and the State of California is likely to play a role in shaping the new administration’s policy on the environment and transportation.
Biden already has said he plans to rejoin the Paris Climate Accords “on Day One” when he is sworn into office in January to signal his commitment to fighting climate change, which has largely been ignored or disparaged during Donald Trump’s four years in the White House.
However, the Paris agreement sets only voluntary targets and goals, albeit some of them quite ambitious, for individual countries and industries to meet during the next 30 years. None of the “rules” are compulsory.
The fuel-economy rules for car and trucks, however, can have a more immediate impact on personal transportation and the auto industry through the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, which administer the federal fuel economy regulations.
According to Bloomberg, Biden is considering naming Mary Nichols, the hard-nosed arbiter of air quality in the State of California as head of the California Air Resources Board, to lead the EPA.
Other candidates include Heather McTeer Toney, an environmental activist who held a senior EPA post in the Obama administration and Sen. Tom Carper (D-Delaware.)
Nichols, as Bloomberg notes, battled the Trump administration about California’s mandate for electric vehicles and tough emission regulations. She also cheerfully engaged auto industry executives such as the late Sergio Marchionne and has been champion of the 55 miles per gallon standard advanced by Obama that Trump is now in court trying to undermine.
The officials heading the Biden task force preparing for the take over the U.S Department of Transportation is headed by Phillip Washington, the executive director of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The group also includes representatives from environmental organizations such as Earth Justice and the Sierra Club, according to the President-elect’s transition website.
The Trump administration lawsuit that could scuttle the Obama-era standard appears headed for oblivion,
leaving the California standard standing. Several automakers led by Ford and BMW have already made their peace with the California standards. However, others – led by General Motors and Toyota – sided with the Trump administration, calling for one national standard. They are likely to get wish now, but it’s likely to be the California standard.
Meanwhile, the auto industry has changed dramatically in the past four years as manufacturers have ramped up spending on EVs, sales of new energy vehicles have surged in China and cities across Europe have clamped new restrictions on vehicles with internal combustion engines.
In addition, the market value of Tesla and a flock of EV startups has surged, suggesting that Wall Street expects the cars and trucks of the future to be powered by electricity rather than gasoline or diesel fuel.
Biden has outlined proposals that call for spending $2 billion to revamp and renovate the nation’s transportation infrastructure to make it greener and to prepare for the coming of electric vehicles by broadly expanding the nation’s network for charging EVs. Rebuilding the transportation network is listed one of the incoming administration’s top priorities, according to the transition web site.
Biden, however, isn’t hostile to the car business. He cites the rescue of the domestic auto industry in 2009 when he was vice president as one of his proudest achievements in government service. His father sold cars and Biden also talks proudly of his vintage Chevrolet Corvette, telling an audience in Detroit during his campaign that he is looking forward to driving the battery-electric Corvette GM is promising to build.
While under pressure from environmentalists, Senator Chris Coons (D-Delaware,) a Biden friend and close ally, noted in an interview on CNN shortly after the Democratic candidate was named the winner of the race for president, noted politically climate change is very challenging issue for the American political system.
Biden has tried to thread the needle, emphasizing he isn’t prepared to block or ban fracking which has helped the U.S. gain a measure of industry independence. However, he is willing to place sharp limits on leasing public lands across the western United States for fracking.