Los Angeles County will only buy cars from automakers that comply with California’s clean air laws, joining the state’s boycott of companies like General Motors and Toyota that have sided with the Trump administration in the high-profile bout over emissions standards.
The order prevents the approximately $30 million the county spends annually on its fleet from going to automakers that are supporting the Trump administration’s push to revoke a waiver that gives California the ability to set its own emissions standards rules.
LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl says the decision is necessary to protect public health and uphold the state’s climate change policies.
“We have a choice and we’re taking our buying power elsewhere,” Kuehl said Wednesday, one day after the board approved her motion. “We don’t want to go back to Smogville.”
The decision will go into effect early 2020 and makes Los Angeles the first county to align with the state’s boycott of GM, Toyota, Fiat Chrysler and Nissan.
Last month Gov. Gavin Newsom hit back at the automakers for aligning with the president and announced the state would no longer buy their vehicles. He went a step further by ordering state agencies to only buy sedans that are electric or hybrid models.
“Carmakers that have chosen to be on the wrong side of history will be on the losing end of California’s buying power,” Newsom said of the move.
The state and county boycotts are the latest developments in an increasingly hostile showdown between the Trump administration and California officials over climate change.
The federal government is attempting to revoke a Clean Air Act waiver that Congress first granted the state in 1970, something no other administration has attempted. The EPA has granted California more than 100 waivers for emissions standards.
But in August 2018, in a move that stunned state officials, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it was scrapping Obama-era vehicle emissions and fuel economy standards that were intended to nearly double passenger vehicle’s fuel economy and halve their carbon emissions by 2025. After months of back and forth with the state, settlement talks stalled and the EPA officially revoked California’s waiver this past September.
The EPA defended its decision and cast California’s standards as regulatory burdens that were preventing automakers from producing cheap cars, calling for one uniform standard. Meanwhile Trump claimed the move would lead to a rush of “less expensive cars” and be a boon for consumers and workers.
“Many more cars will be produced under the new and uniform standard, meaning significantly more JOBS, JOBS, JOBS! Automakers should seize this opportunity because without this alternative to California, you will be out of business,” Trump tweeted.
California predictably responded with a pair of federal lawsuits that are pending in the District of Columbia, joined by 22 other states. The states dispute that the EPA has the right to revoke a waiver intended to improve air pollution in the first place.
Automakers have been forced to pick sides: Ford, Honda, BMW and Volkswagen reached a deal with California this past July, while GM, Toyota and Fiat Chrysler have aligned with Trump. In response to California’s deal, the U.S. Justice Department started an antitrust investigation into Ford, Honda, BMW and Volkswagen.
California’s emissions laws, which have been adopted by a dozen other states, have forced automakers to produce cleaner, more efficient cars to help clear California’s infamously smoggy skies. The clean air laws are also a critical component of the state’s ambitious climate change goals, as tailpipe emissions are the major contributor of greenhouse gas emissions in the state.
Kuehl says the strict emissions laws have been a particular success in Los Angeles, where smoggy skies regularly plagued residents throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
“There were days where kids couldn’t go to school and people would walk around downtown with masks,” Kuehl said.
While the county and state are hoping to prove a point by taking their business elsewhere, some are wary of the boycotts’ potential to cause automakers real economic harm.
David Vogel, professor emeritus of business ethics and political science at the University of California, Berkeley, said the boycotts are mostly “symbolic” at this point.
“I don’t think it will have any impact on the companies and their decisions,” Vogel said in a phone interview.
If the courts eventually rule against California, Vogel says it wouldn’t necessarily result in a flood of smog-belching gas guzzlers on California freeways. State officials could go around the federal government by passing new taxes and registration fees to discourage high-mileage cars, along with the likely possibility that automakers continue improving fuel efficiency in lieu of an order to keep up with changing consumer tastes.
“It’s unclear what the rescinding of the waiver matters because companies obviously will continue to move towards electric cars. The market is sort of moving in that direction anyway,” Vogel said.
Nonetheless, Vogel believes California has a “very strong” argument and could end up winning in federal court. He noted the Trump administration has ventured into “new legal territory” by targeting California’s waiver and that it has a burden of proof to meet for the revocation to stand.
As the fight over California’s clean air laws plays out in courtrooms nearly 3,000 miles away, Kuehl hopes the county’s move will be adopted by other states and local governments.
“By channeling our investment dollars, we can protect public health, particularly at-risk children and the elderly,” said the former child actor and state senator.
— By Nick Cahill