Trump’s fuel economy rollback leaves Trudeau in a bind: Follow the U.S., or take a stand

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Daniel Dale

The Toronto Star

The auto industry wants Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to go along with U.S. President Donald Trump’s move to weaken fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks. Environmentalists want Trudeau to refuse, immediately, and join forces with liberal American states.

The Trump administration’s decision to abandon the current Obama-era standards puts Trudeau in the position of choosing between the goal of rapidly reducing emissions and the goal of keeping Canada’s car regulations in sync with those of the United States.

Trudeau’s government declined Tuesday to offer an opinion on the Trump decision. A spokesperson for Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna said Canada would fulfill its previous commitment to conduct a “thorough” review of its policy, like the study the U.S. government just completed, and make its decision based on “careful considerations of environmental and economic impacts.”

Environmentalists urged Trudeau to speak up quickly in opposition. Keith Stewart, senior energy strategist for Greenpeace Canada, said “standing on the sidelines is standing with Trump” rather than with the march of history.

“Trudeau has been very careful to not criticize Trump, but this one: you’ve got to pick a side here,” Stewart said.

Cutting auto emissions is a significant component of Trudeau’s plan to meet Canada’s target, under the Paris climate accord, of cutting emissions by 30 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030. Canada is not close to being on track to hit the target, a report released last week showed.

The Obama-era fuel standards being revoked by Trump are for the years 2022 to 2025. They call for automakers to hit a real-world efficiency average of about 36 miles per gallon (15 kilometres per litre) or more by 2025, up from a record high of 24.7 miles per gallon (10.5 kilometres per litre) for new vehicles in 2016.

Announcing the decision Tuesday, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt said the Trump administration’s to-be-determined standards would be more economical for car companies.

“I think the focus in the past has been on making manufacturers in Detroit, making manufacturers in various parts of the country, make cars that people aren’t going to buy,” Pruitt said. “Our focus should be on making cars that people purchase actually more efficient.”

It will take at least months, possibly years, for Trump to soften the standards: the U.S. regulatory process is lengthy, and the move could be tied up in court. The attorney general of California, which has a waiver that allows it to set stricter auto standards than the U.S. government, said he is “ready to file suit if needed.”

Environmentalists said Canada should continue to align itself with California — by maintaining the current standard, which Obama copied from California — even if Trump weakens the federal standard. A dozen U.S. states, including New York, follow California’s lead, and these states together represent a third of the U.S. car market.

“Canada was planning on these standards. There is going to be a market in the U.S. that will be following the higher standards. So I think that Canada should be clear that we’re not going to roll back environmental standards because the Trump administration thinks we should be,” said Dale Marshall, national program manager at Environmental Defence. “I don’t think our domestic policy, especially our domestic environmental policy, should be set by a regressive U.S. government.”

The situation is further complicated by the newly uncertain status of California’s waiver. Pruitt vaguely suggested that he may attempt to have the waiver revoked.

The Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers’ Association, which represents the Canadian interests of Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler, said that both Canadian consumers and climate efforts could be harmed if Trudeau decides to maintain a higher standard for Canada than Trump does for the U.S.

CVMA president Mark Nantais said automakers could decide not to sell some models in Canada rather than attempt to meet an overly stringent standard they do not have to meet across the U.S. Nantais said the cost of meeting a separate standard could make cars sold in Canada cost more.

That, he said, could hurt emissions reductions efforts, since higher prices would result in Canadians taking longer to replace higher-emissions older cars with cleaner new cars.

A synchronized market “ensures that Canadians enjoy greater environmental benefits with the most advanced energy efficiency technology,” Nantais said. He added: “We’re an integrated industry in autos, we’re an integrated North American market. It’s very difficult to pull that apart.”

Environmentalists disagree that maintaining a higher standard might hurt the environment.

Stephen Harper’s Conservative government agreed in 2010 to raise Canada’s standards to match Obama’s in the interest of harmonization.