Environmentalists say that the industry runs the risk of hurting its image with car buyers if it is perceived as supporting a broader rollback of clean-air rules. “They’re nervous about being seen as perpetrators of this attack on human health and the environment,” said Daniel Becker, who directs the Safe Climate Campaign at the advocacy group Center for Auto Safety. “It’s a big thing to be accused of.”
California had been on board with the Obama administration’s standards, announced in 2012. So had automakers. Ford Motor “recognizes the benefit for the country” of the “historic program” to address fuel economy and greenhouse gases, Alan Mulally, Ford’s chief executive at the time, said in a letter to federal regulators then.
But the rules came with a caveat: a review period during which the rules could be reconsidered. That review was in full swing in November 2016, when Mr. Trump won the presidency. In a pre-emptive move in its final days, the Obama administration closed the review period and finalized the standards through 2025, calling them “feasible, practical and appropriate.”
But, in a high-stakes bet, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler also decided to lobby the new president to reverse that decision and reopen the review.
At a meeting at the White House in March last year, Ford’s new chief executive, Mark Fields, told Mr. Trump that the current rules, as they stood, would endanger as many as 1 million jobs. Mr. Fields later said during a telephone call with analysts that he felt their remarks “resonated” with the president.
In letters and filings, automakers listed their demands, such as the “off-cycle credits” for shutting down the engine, and the changes to the way pollution from electricity generation is counted for electric cars.
The automakers wagered that California could be persuaded to go along with their list. But the Trump administration proved to be a wild card in the negotiations when it signaled that it would go well beyond the automakers’ requests.