California will charge ahead with its plan to mandate more clean cars, as the nation’s most populous state again positions itself as a key challenger to the Trump administration.

The California Air Resources Board at a Friday hearing approved its midterm review of car mandates passed in 2012, saying the standards remain appropriate. The vote means the rules stay in place through 2025.

In order to sell in California, automakers must produce an increasing percentage of zero-emissions vehicles, or ZEVs, and cut tailpipe greenhouse gas and particulate emissions.

State officials at the meeting asserted California’s right to set its standards. They lambasted automaker and Trump administration efforts to reopen federal rules on vehicle mileage and emissions.

Agency Chairwoman Mary Nichols rebuked a decision by auto trade groups to seek President Trump’s help re-examining those regulations, which the Obama administration finalized late last year.

“What were you thinking?” Nichols said to trade group representatives at the hearing, adding that she also was speaking to their counterparts in Washington, D.C. “What were you thinking when you threw yourselves upon the mercy of the Trump administration to try to solve your problems? It just does not make sense.”

Existing federal mileage and pollution standards became law in 2012 after a settlement between the Obama administration, California and automakers. The rules largely were modeled on California policies. Car manufacturers at the time negotiated in the midterm review.

Obama’s EPA late last year completed that review and finalized standards. Those increase required gas mileage to 50.8 mpg for cars and light-duty trucks by model year 2025.

Automakers argue the midterm look was intended to end in 2018, using data available at that point. Trump’s EPA and the Department of Transportation earlier this month said they’ll reconsider the Obama administration decision. If they soften requirements, California’s rules would be the toughest in the country.

California has a waiver under the Clean Air Act that allows it to set rules more stringent than the federal government. Twelve states and the District of Columbia follow California’s mandates, rather than EPA’s. Combined, they represent about 40 percent of vehicle sales.

Asked about Nichols’ comments, trade groups the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and Global Automakers said they were focused on “one national program,” the goal of having the same rules for the federal government and all states. They’ve also said meeting the current standards will be hard because consumers prefer trucks and SUVs over ZEVs and high-mpg cars.

“The record number of high MPG and alternative powertrains our Members have in showrooms today are not selling at rates required to meet these targets,” said Mitch Bainwol, president and CEO of Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, in a letter last week to California Gov. Jerry Brown (D). “In this low gas price environment, consumers are simply not choosing the vehicles required to support the existing schedule.”

The letter came after Brown had called Trump’s decision to reopen the EPA standards “an unconscionable gift to polluters.”

Other states praise rule

The five-hour hearing on California’s midterm review featured a parade of supporters. Representatives from Connecticut and Massachusetts—states that follow California’s rule—flew in to attend and praised the policy. Both said it was needed to meet their greenhouse gas reduction goals.

Environmental, health and community groups also voiced support.

“The ZEV program is a key driver for expanding markets in California and other states,” said Irene Gutierrez, attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The ZEV program is working. It creates a market for plug-in electric vehicles and drives costs down and makes vehicles more accessible.”

Auto trade groups supported elements of California’s rules, while arguing for one national program.

“We agree that we need to continue to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve fuel economy,” said John Bozzella, president and CEO of trade group Global Automakers, which represents Honda, Hyundai, Isuzu, Kia, Toyota and others. “We agree that developing advanced technologies and consumer acceptance and demand for those technologies are central to the achievement of our goals.”

However, he added that there was a problem with having more than one set of regulations on cars “that are inconsistent and require different compliance paths with no added benefit to consumers or the environment.”

“When EPA prematurely ended its part of the midterm review,” Bozzella said, “we lost an important part of the discussion: making sure we ended up with a fully aligned national program that balances innovation, compliance, and consumer needs and wants.”

Steve Douglas, senior director with the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents BMW, Fiat Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Mazda and others, said his group recognized “that California has a waiver for greenhouse gas and zero-emissions vehicles and low-emission vehicle programs.”

“We have not requested or advocated for the [Trump] administration to overturn those waivers,” he said.

At the federal level, he said, the trade group was seeking to return to a midterm review timeline laid out in 2012.

“So last week’s activity brought us back to where we would have otherwise been, but for EPA’s action at the end of last year, beginning of this year, that we believe was premature,” Douglas said.

Federal review not early—Nichols

California officials and some green advocates at the hearing rejected that the Obama midterm review was premature.

The midterm review “never was intended to have to go out to the full possible length,” Nichols said. “It was not something that was even contemplated at the time, that it must extend further. It was supposed to be done when it was ready to be done.

“So the recent cries of process foul about the EPA decision ... struck us as strange, to put it mildly,” she added.

Nichols also jumped on Douglas’ statement about the Golden State’s Clean Air Act waiver.

“We hear today that you didn’t really mean to question the validity of the California waiver,” Nichols said. “Well, our newly confirmed head of the Environmental Protection Agency said he was prepared to do just that.”

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has refused to promise that he will affirm state waivers.

Several ARB members challenged auto trade group statements that consumers aren’t as interested in ZEVs. Board member John Balmes said he sees “ad after ad” for Chevrolet Silverado, Ford F-150 and RAM trucks.

“The industry talks about there’s no market for these vehicles—well, you create market,” Balmes said. “You put millions of dollars into advertising. You say the public doesn’t want to buy these vehicles, but it doesn’t try to sell it to them.”

ARB member Hector de la Torre said the tension between California and the Trump administration meant automakers were caught, in a sense, “between two bickering parents.”

He then warned that “if a divorce is going to happen at some point, we are going to litigate that divorce strongly.”

He defended California’s right to have its standards.

“There were three parties at that table back in 2012 when the settlement on the federal standard was reached,” de la Torre said. “We were one of those parties. And we are going to continue exercising our authority under that deal, until we decide that deal is no longer valid.”

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at