WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's wholesale assault on his predecessor's climate change policies is now fully visible. And that could put automakers in a bind.
The most recent moves came as the EPA and the Interior Department weakened rules designed to monitor and prevent leaks of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, at oil and gas wells. In August, the agency published its intention to scale back President Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan for reducing carbon dioxide pollution from coal-fired power plants.
Meanwhile, the administration is working to lower emissions and fuel economy standards for passenger vehicles built next decade.
It's no surprise. Trump and his top advisers reject the scientific consensus that humans are the main cause of global warming. Their highest priority is reducing red tape and costs for business.
So much so that they're willing to live with an ideological contradiction: The administration wants to assert federal supremacy to set nationwide air-quality regulations when it comes to auto emissions, but for methane emissions and pollution from coal-burning power plants, it is happy to have state-level standards apply. Whatever it takes to make the standards turn out more lax than they were before.
But it's unclear how much auto business will benefit from relaxing standards for tailpipe emissions. Yes, the auto industry lobbied for compliance flexibility to avoid potential penalties and certain technology costs, but most car companies want changes that are modest enough to maintain a single national program, whereby California recognizes the federal standards as equivalent to its own strict ones.
The Trump administration's aggressive proposal now has officials in California, and a dozen partner states, vowing to hold automakers to state requirements, a costly scenario that could force automakers to produce and sell different cars for different markets.
Automakers are under pressure to negotiate a compromise with California that might salvage the single program.
But here's the rub: If automakers follow through on their earth-friendly rhetoric, remain committed to the mileage rules and developing electric vehicles, and reach a compromise that satisfies California, will they be unilaterally — and disproportionately — carrying the burden for reducing air pollution, while other industries escape those costs?
Automakers could have an outside drag on earnings that publicly traded energy and power companies get to avoid, since none of them are stepping up to voluntarily comply with existing rules.
Automakers don't have the luxury of opting out. Unlike power companies, they must compete globally, and clean-car investments will be necessary if companies want to do business in places such as China and Europe, where internal combustion engines are slowly being regulated out of existence.
So they would have to remain part of the solution while the problem gets much bigger.