GM exits Trump fuel efficiency fight, backs electric future

More evidence that the auto industry has begun to accept the inevitability of an electric future

General Motors CEO Mary Barra after a 2018 meeting with the Michigan congressional delegration. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
General Motors CEO Mary Barra after a 2018 meeting with the Michigan congressional delegration. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted November 23, 2020 at 5:44pm

General Motors’ announcement Monday that it is withdrawing from a Trump administration effort to end California’s right to set its own fuel efficiency standards is yet more evidence that the auto industry has begun to accept the inevitability of an electric future and is moving on from a Trump White House. 

In a letter Monday to 11 environmental organizations that fought the Trump administration’s less stringent fuel efficiency standards, GM CEO Mary Barra said the company agrees with President-elect Joe Biden’s plan to expand electric vehicle use and is withdrawing from a lawsuit aimed at quashing California’s decades-old authority to set its own emissions standards. Barra urged other automakers to follow suit. 

“President-elect Biden recently said, ‘I believe that we can own the 21st century car market again by moving to electric vehicles.’ We at General Motors couldn’t agree more,” Barra wrote, adding “we believe there is now a path to achieve agreement on a national standard and complementary policies to accelerate the electrification of the light-duty transportation sector.”

Barra also spoke Monday with Mary Nichols, head of the California Air Resources Board, a Nichols spokesman confirmed. Barra met with Biden and other business and labor leaders Nov. 16.

The letter marked a sharp turn for Barra, who privately urged Trump at the beginning of his administration to loosen President Barack Obama’s 2012 emissions standards. Trump obliged, not only initially moving to freeze the standards at 2021 levels but also launching a protracted fight with California, which began setting its own stricter fuel efficiency standards in the 1970s. 

GM, Toyota and Fiat Chrysler backed Trump in his efforts to revoke California’s right to set their own standards. Doing so put them at odds with BMW, Ford, Volkswagen, Volvo and Honda, which in August of this year finalized a legal settlement to comply with California's more stringent fuel efficiency standards.

Auto industry analysts have said while many automakers were concerned about meeting Obama’s stringent levels, they were ultimately stunned at how much of a reversal Trump was willing to make. 

Reversal

Obama called for emission standards for new cars to rise roughly 5 percent a year to a fleet-wide average of 54 miles per gallon by 2025. Trump originally planned to freeze fuel economy standards at 2021 levels but later changed to raising the standard by1.5 percent per year from model years 2021 through 2026. The administration said the weaker standards would result in cheaper cars, thus spurring consumers to buy new, safer and cleaner vehicles. Trump’s rules would have required a fleet-wide average of about 40 miles per gallon by 2026. 

Biden has made the auto industry a centerpiece of his “Build Back Better” campaign plan, vowing to create 1 million new jobs in the U.S. auto industry, including in the supply chains and for auto infrastructure such as electric vehicle charging stations. He also vowed to establish “ambitious” fuel economy standards to accelerate the adoption of zero emissions light- and medium-duty vehicles, promising to “position American auto workers, manufacturers, and consumers to benefit from a clean energy revolution in transport.”

“Glad to see @joebiden ’s leadership — bringing business and labor together a week ago today — is already encouraging progress,” Biden’s chosen Chief of Staff Ron Klain tweeted in response to Barra’s letter.

Environmental groups applauded the move as well.

“We believe the ambitious electrification goals of the President-elect, California, and General Motors are aligned to address climate change by drastically reducing automobile emissions,” Barra said in the letter. “We are confident that the Biden administration, California, and the U.S. auto industry, which supports 10.3 million jobs, can collaboratively find the pathway that will deliver an all-electric future.”

The letter was sent to the leadership of groups including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, the Union of Concerned Scientists and Public Citizen. 

“GM’s move is an important sign that automakers recognize that the transition to zero-emitting vehicles is well underway,” said Luke Tonachel, director for clean cars and clean fuels at NRDC, who called for other automakers to drop out of the suit. “If GM is going to live up to its promise of being part of the solution to our climate crisis, it must support ambitious, federal and state clean car standards – standards that will put us on the path to make all new passenger vehicles pollution-free by 2035.”

Wendy Wendlandt, acting president of Environment America, said by joining Ford, BMW, Honda, Volkswagen and others, GM was “driving toward the right side of history when it comes to the clean car standards.”

“We cannot address climate change without phasing out gas-powered cars, and GM embracing the promise of electric cars goes in the right direction,” she said, adding, “It's never too late to do the right thing.”