Donald Trump’s efforts to roll back standards for both fuel consumption and vehicle efficiency haven’t generated jobs for workers, profits for companies, or any savings to consumers. But they have generated a huge amount of confusion—which is expected to continue as the White House tries to take away authority of the state of California that is written into federal law.
When the Clean Air Act was written, it included a special provision that California had the right to set its own standards for vehicle efficiency and emissions, so long as those standards were at least as tough as those of the federal government. The provision was made in recognition that conditions and the sheer scale of cities such as Los Angeles could require tougher standards. In fact, the smog then plaguing California cities was a big force behind why there is a Clean Air Act. Other states can choose to follow either the California standard or the federal standard.
At some points in the past, this has led to the United States having two standards, and anyone purchasing a car over a decade ago may have run into models that were advertised as meeting California emissions rules. But for many manufacturers it was simply cheaper and easier to meet California’s standards—especially since those standards were often similar to rising standards in Europe and other markets.
Under President Obama, the problem was solved by an agreement that essentially united the standards, setting federal levels that were tough enough to satisfy California regulators and bringing the whole nation into a single standard. That system satisfied both states and manufacturers. So, naturally, Donald Trump set out to break it.
After Trump rolled back the CAFE standards, it broke the unity between California and federal standards. Trump seemed to think that automakers would jump at the chance to burn more gas and pump out more emissions. But rather than celebrate Trump’s actions, the companies immediately began negotiating with California over new standards. At the same time, more than a dozen states elected to follow the standard being defined by California.