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What's At Stake For Automakers In Fight Over Emissions Standards


Some of the world's largest automakers want to renegotiate a White House proposal to roll back fuel efficiency and auto emission standards. It was passed in the Obama administration. Seventeen automakers, including GM, Ford and Toyota, have signed a letter that lists concerns they have about instability changes might bring. Margo Oge was a former director of the Environmental Protection Agency. She helped develop the 2025 program that's in jeopardy now and is now an informal adviser to several auto companies. Margo Oge joins us. Thanks very much for being with us.

MARGO OGE: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: And why do the automakers believe that rolling back the regulations, which I thought at one point they wanted, might mean instability?

OGE: So as you said, in 2012, under President Obama, we set the most historic climate action program in - not just in the U.S. but in the planet as a whole. All the car companies supported it. It was a win for everybody. Then, in 2016, when President Trump won the White House, basically the car companies approached the White House, and they claimed, first, they cannot meet the 2025 standards. And second, falsely, they claimed, like, 1 million jobs would be lost.

So President Trump listened to them. And last August, they proposed to relax the standards and take away California's unique authority. Now, this was more than the car companies were asking for. And they realized, wait a moment. We need you to have a deal with California because without such deal, it's going to hurt the industry.

SIMON: There's no deal without California, is there?

OGE: Absolutely not - no deal. You know, Congress recognized, when the Environmental Protection Agency was established in 1970, that California was the first to set their own car standards, even before we had a federal agency dealing with air pollution. And they have allowed California, for the last 50 years, to set emission standards that are more stringent than the federal government. So California has been the laboratory of innovation when it comes to reducing emissions from cars.

SIMON: Is the auto industry essentially telling the Trump White House it's going to be - it's going to create market instability for us to have to manufacture according to U.S. national standards and California national standards?

OGE: That's one of the issues. But it's more than that. Because if the Trump administration moves forward rolling back the standards, California and 18 other states that reflect more than 50% or 60% of the car sales in the country will challenge that decision in courts. And it will take three to four years...


OGE: ...You know, for the courts to go through. And maybe this issue will come all the way to the Supreme Court. Car companies, they need at least five years certainty to design a car, and they don't have that. So unless there is an agreement with California, they're going to find themselves dealing with uncertainty, which means, you know, lack of stability for the industry as a whole. It's pretty bad for the companies.

SIMON: To what degree, is it your impression, automakers see the reduction of pollution as part of their responsibility in this country now?

OGE: Well, you know, clearly, what they will tell you is that they care about climate change. But also, they're worrying about competitiveness. Back in 2012, when we set the standards for cars, the U.S. was ahead of every other country. China is doing better than us now and so is Europe. So companies realize that the way forward is to invest on advanced technologies, like electric vehicles. And if they don't, they're going to stay behind, and they're going to lose the competitiveness in the marketplace.

SIMON: Margo Oge was director of the EPA's office of transportation and air quality for over 30 years and is now an informal adviser to auto companies. Thanks so much.

OGE: Thank you, Scott. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.