Tribune Editorial: Utah should help California keep its fuel efficiency standards

Gov. Gavin Newsom, left, flanked by California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, discusses the Trump administration's pledge to revoke California's authority to set vehicle emissions standards that are different than the federal standards, during a news conference in Sacramento, Calif., Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Utah politicians like three things.

Business. Standing up to the federal government. Not being California.

Here’s a situation where two out of three ain’t bad.

It is a situation where Utah should stand with the automobile industry, with California — and against the administration in Washington — by objecting to recent efforts to halt the march toward clearer cars across the United States.

The state of California has the power, under the Clean Air Act of 1970, to set standards for automobile fuel efficiency that are more stringent than the national requirements. It won that power because, well, it’s California, and because that state has long suffered the most from the harmful smog caused by auto emissions.

It was a provision that technically only mattered in California. But practically it also mattered in other places, like Utah, because California is such a huge market for autos that whatever standard it sets can become the default for the whole nation.

Under the Obama administration, deals were struck to gradually move the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards for the whole country up to 54 miles per gallon by model year 2025. Automakers and the United Auto Workers backed the deal. They liked having predictable standards to meet over the next several years. They liked the push to match the increasing fuel efficiencies of cars demanded by and made in other countries. And they recognized that President Obama’s bailout of the auto industry in 2009 left that president with some chits to call in.

Now we have a different president, one devoted to nothing so much as undoing everything accomplished by his predecessor. He recently announced that the federal CAFE standards set by Obama and accepted by automakers would top out at 37 mpg, the target that had been set for 2021. For the whole nation. Including California.

Not only that, but the administration announced that it was going to cancel California’s CAFE waiver and launch an antitrust investigation against four of the biggest car makers in the world — Ford, Honda, BMW and Volkswagen — that had cut a side deal with California to keep moving toward higher standards.

Utah should make California’s cause its own.

For one thing, Utah likes the federal government giving waivers to states. It’s what our government sought, and lost, in its plan to replace the kind of Medicaid expansion created by the federal Affordable Care Act, and demanded by the voters when they passed Proposition 3 last year. But California’s power to set tighter rules is not an administrative option. It is written into an act of Congress.

Using federal antitrust laws to tell corporations they can’t work together to invent and produce things that people really need is neither business-friendly nor environmentally sound.

Besides, higher fuel efficiency standards, whether set for the nation or lifted by California, are a key part of what success Utah has had in fighting the serious air quality problems that plague the state in general and the Wasatch Front in particular.

Instead of giving aid and comfort to Texas and some other states that are devoted to killing Obamacare and denying health insurance to millions of Americans, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes should file one of his friend of the court briefs on the side of California’s air quality fight.

For once, it would put Utah on the right side of one of these fights.

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