Donald Trump is heading to Michigan, where he's expected to announce a review of federal emissions regulations that were approved by the Environmental Protection Agency just one week before the president took office.
That should make some auto industry employees very, very happy, but perhaps they should hold their applause. Sources report that Trump will stay mum on a related issue, one that's given automakers plenty of concerns since 2009.
That was the year that the EPA granted a waiver to the California Air Resources Board, allowing it to set its own auto emissions benchmarks. CARB and the EPA have worked together to create one, nationwide standard, but in the future, there's a possibility that car manufacturers could be forced to juggle two sets of regulations: one for California, and one for the other 49 states.
That's an unpleasant scenario that looms large in automakers' minds at the moment. CARB's chairperson Mary Nichols says that during the anticipated EPA review, CARB will work with the EPA to find common ground with car companies. However, she notes that California has goals and principles of its own, and it's legally entitled to set emissions standards that vary from the EPA's, if it comes to that.
No one knows how the review process will play out. Administration officials have been somewhat cagey, insisting that this is merely going to be a re-evaluation of the EPA's mid-term review, not an upending of the decision. Automakers say that they just want the chance to be heard and to align regulations with current market realities.
If that's the case, it's the kind of common-sense, middle-ground approach that could create meaningful compromises. Though folks on the far-left and far-right tend to hate that sort of thing, those in the middle understand that sometimes, you have to take a little to get a little.
As for leaving CARB's waiver in place, well, that's a different story. If the administration allows California to continue setting its own regulations, then re-opening the EPA review may just be for show, because CARB's rulings carry so much weight by themselves.
Should the EPA and its new chief, Scott Pruitt, drop the emissions bar too low, CARB might take off on its own, creating separate, higher standards for the auto industry. Given the size and value of California's auto market, it's entirely possible that automakers would simply adopt CARB's tougher benchmarks, rather than designing cars to meet two separate sets of guidelines. That would render the EPA's own regulations largely moot.
At the moment, the Trump team's move seems like a net win for centrists and perhaps environmentalists, not so much for anti-regulation libertarians. But if we've learned anything over the past couple of months, it's that this administration is capable of offering a few surprises. Stay tuned.