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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Froma Harrop: On setting vehicle efficiency, California will win

It was almost the weirdest Trump play of the week. The president’s bizarre threats against carmakers fell in the shadows after he called off a meeting with the Danish prime minister because she wouldn’t discuss selling him Greenland. What we and the Danes initially interpreted as a clownish stunt turned creepy after Trump canceled his visit in an apparent snit.

Of greater significance was Trump’s warning carmakers they should reject California’s tighter standards for automobile emissions. Conservative arguments in the past would have centered on the auto industry’s right to oppose what were deemed to be unreasonable demands for fuel economy – specifically those set by the Obama administration and the environmentally conscious state of California.

Now Trump is demanding that other automakers not do what Honda, Ford, Volkswagen and BMW have done: side with California on this matter. He’s specifically pressured Toyota, Fiat Chrysler and General Motors to stay on his polluting side. Mercedes-Benz was also called on the carpet but is apparently joining the California club.

I don’t own a Honda CR-V. And I have no financial interest in the company. Let me say that right off the bat. But this compact SUV offers stunning proof that the more stringent standards are utterly doable. The 2017 CR-V not only met the Obama administration’s 2022 target for fuel economy but also did so years before the deadline.

A friend recently took his wife and me on a summer’s week jaunt to the mountains. We jammed half our lives into the back of the CR-V, including cartons of food, flippers and a drone. I drive a medium-sized sedan whose cargo space has never failed to meet my needs. In my peasant judgment, though, this vehicle is a big and comfy thing.

Want to know who the great negotiator is? It’s California, which, in return for compliance, had offered the automakers somewhat less restrictive standards than Obama’s. The Obama rule would have required an average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. California would permit about 51 miles per gallon by 2026.

Because so many states follow the California standards, they now cover about 40% of the U.S. car market. Canada just signed on in June.

The Trump administration wants to set the standard at about 37 miles per gallon. This is Stone Age thinking in a world of tightening emissions rules where civilized societies face the crisis of global warming. And the administration is doing U.S. automakers no favors as they try to compete in that world.

Are Trump claims that his laxer mileage requirements will make vehicles more affordable and safer true? No and no.

Consumer Reports says that the rollback would raise the cost by an additional $3,300 per vehicle in fuel spending. About 70% of these extra costs would fall on owners of pickup trucks, minivans and SUVs.

Consumer Reports analyzed conservative projections of traffic safety and found that easing pollution standards would not make vehicles safer.

It’s hard to imagine a universe in which a government would threaten manufacturers for agreeing to produce less-polluting products. But there you have it.

Details of fuel economy aside, you also have the matter of the Trumpian ego. Major companies blowing off his efforts at intimidation is not a good look for Trump. Honda completely unloaded, saying the administration’s proposal “invites litigation and regulatory uncertainty, stalls long-term strategic industry planning, puts at risk American global competitiveness, exacerbates climate-related environmental impacts” and so on. All true.

California has already told Trump to get lost on this and other confrontations. Trump can threaten and sue and fall on the floor kicking his legs. But face it. On this issue, California will win.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at