The stand-off between Donald Trump’s administration and the state of California over vehicle emissions escalated on Friday, as the transport department said the state’s new standards were “unlawful and invalid” and the justice department launched an investigation into the four carmakers that signed up to them.
Volkswagen, Ford, BMW and Honda are under investigation, after they agreed in July to abide by a new set of rules set by California that are stricter than those proposed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The July deal with the California Air Resources Board (Carb) to boost gas mileage standards and cut emissions splits from an effort by the Trump administration to ease Obama-era federal standards. That could potentially splinter the vast US auto market, because a handful of states follow California’s rules.
On Friday, the EPA and the Department of Transportation claimed that the Carb deal “appears to be inconsistent with federal law”.
A letter to Carb and the four carmakers said: “Congress has squarely vested the authority to set fuel economy standards with new motor vehicles, and nationwide standards for vehicle emissions, with the federal government, not with California or any other state.”
The DoJ probe into the automakers is intended to establish whether the four carmakers negotiated with each other in a de facto cartel to sign the Californian deal, and whether it will limit consumer choice if the groups agreed not to compete with each other in certain areas. The investigation was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
Ford confirmed that it received a letter from the justice department, adding that it “will co-operate with respect to any inquiry”.
Honda said it “will work cooperatively with the Department of Justice with regard to the recent emissions agreement reached between the State of California and various automotive manufacturers, including Honda.”
VW said it is “in regular contact with US authorities on a number of matters” but declined to comment on specifics, while BMW acknowledged it had received the request regarding the agreement. “We look forward to responding to the Department of Justice to explain the planned Carb framework agreement and its benefits to consumers and the environment,” BMW said in a statement.
The DoJ declined to comment.
Automakers operating in the US have urged regulators to create one set of national emissions standards.
But California and the Trump administration have been locked in a battle over the issue, as California has pushed forward with an agreement that loosens requirements championed by the Obama administration but sets fuel-economy targets that are expected to be tougher than the Trump plan.
Mr Trump has been highly critical of California’s deal with the four automakers, saying last month: “Henry Ford would be very disappointed if he saw his modern-day descendants wanting to build a much more expensive car, that is far less safe and doesn’t work as well, because execs don’t want to fight California regulators.”
Democrats expressed concern about the move on Friday, and some described it as politically motivated. Dianne Feinstein, a senator from California, called it “very troubling.”
“It’s remarkable that in the face of overwhelming evidence, this administration continues to fight the law and science rather than fight climate change”, Ms Feinstein said in a statement.
Tom Carper, a senator from Delaware and the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate’s environment committee, said: “This investigation is nothing but an attempt by the Trump Administration to retaliate against these companies and stoke fear in others.”
“Stop threatening our carmakers and trying to roll back our rules”, said Gavin Newsom, California’s Democratic governor, in a tweet.