Californians speak against Trump plan to roll back fuel economy standards

California officials say the Trump administration's plan to roll back car-mileage standards is not supported by science, will damage people's health and exacerbate climate change.

Smog from auto emissions already a problem in the state

Smog covers downtown Los Angeles. Attorney General Xavier Becerra spoke against the Trump administration's plan to roll back fuel economy standards. (Nick Ut,/Associated Press)

California officials say the Trump administration's plan to roll back car-mileage standards is not supported by science, will damage people's health and exacerbate climate change.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and California Air Resources Board chairwoman Mary Nichols were among several state officials on the first panel to testify at a hearing in Fresno on Monday. The hearing is intended to seek public comment on the administration's mileage plan.

The proposal would freeze U.S. mileage standards at levels mandated by the Obama administration for 2020 instead of letting them rise to 36 miles per gallon (15 kilometres per litre) by 2025.

Nichols said the administration's claims that the rollback would improve safety were absurd. Becerra said California could not afford to retreat in the fight against climate change.

Doctors, environmental groups and California officials have lined up to fight the Trump proposal which could have adverse effects in a region with some of the nation's worst air pollution.

California leaders, from left to right, Cal/EPA Secretary Matthew Rodriguez, California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra talk to the media at the first of three public hearings on the Trump administration's proposal to roll back car-mileage standards Sept. 24 in Fresno, Calif. (Gary Kazanjian/Associated Press)

The Monday event is the first of three events by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to gather public comment on the mileage plan.

Administration officials say waiving the tougher fuel efficiency requirements would make vehicles more affordable, which would get safer vehicles into consumers' hands more quickly.

Protesters call for 'clean cars now'

Opponents say it would undercut efforts to reduce unhealthy tailpipe emissions that are a significant contributor to climate change. Environmentalists protested outside the hall where the hearing will take place, hoisting signs that read "Clean cars Clean air" and "Clean cars now."

Paul Gipe, 67, and his wife Nancy Nies, 69, drove from the city of Bakersfield to join the demonstration against the rollback.

"It's a step backward and it's a statement that air pollution is acceptable. Damn the people, full speed ahead," said Gipe, who writes about renewable energy on his website.

An avid bicyclist, Gipe said there are days he can't ride because the air quality is so bad in his hometown.

California, where some areas are experiencing the worst smog in decades, cannot afford to "turn back the clock" on its efforts to fight air pollution, Becerra said on a conference call with reporters Friday. 

"This is existential for California," Becerra said. "Failure is not an option for us."

Lawsuit by California and other states

California and other states have filed a lawsuit to block any changes to the fuel efficiency rules. The administration also wants to revoke California's authority to set its own mileage standards.

Canada had been set to adopt the Obama-led standards, which continuously tighten fuel efficiency standards. It has not said what it will do if the U.S. changes its rules.

In testimony prepared for a public hearing Monday in Fresno, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group that represents U.S. and foreign automakers, said customers aren't buying more efficient vehicles.

"No one wins if our customers are not buying the new highly efficient products offered in our showrooms," said Steve Douglas, senior director of energy and environment for the alliance.

The alliance has said there's a widening gap between the requirements approved by the Obama administration and what consumers are buying.

Hearings are also planned on Tuesday in Dearborn, Michigan, and Wednesday in Pittsburgh.