Energy & Environment

DOJ whistleblower cites Trump tweets as impetus for California emissions probe

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A Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation into California’s efforts to reduce vehicle emissions appeared to be politically motivated, a DOJ whistleblower wrote in testimony to lawmakers that was released Tuesday.

John W. Elias, a DOJ career employee slated to appear before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, wrote that an investigation into California’s emissions agreements with four automakers was spurred shortly after tweets from President Trump complaining about the deal.

“The day after the tweets, Antitrust Division political leadership instructed staff to initiate an investigation that day,” Elias said, noting that it was “generated by the division’s policy staff, which does not conduct enforcement investigations of this type.”

The July deal came as the Trump administration was in the midst of developing now-finalized tailpipe emission and mileage standards for vehicles that significantly roll back those developed under the Obama administration. California’s agreements with BMW, Ford, Honda and Volkswagen commit automakers to producing vehicles that could average 50 miles per gallon by 2026, while the Trump plan asks automakers to reach 40 mpg in the same time frame.

“Car companies should know that when this administration’s alternative is no longer available, California will squeeze them to a point of business ruin,” Trump tweeted in August.

The DOJ Antitrust Division immediately began investigating whether the agreement violated the nation’s competition laws against collusion — prompting an outcry from Democratic lawmakers in D.C. and California. 

Elias, the acting chief of staff for DOJ’s Antitrust Division for the first half of the Trump administration, said the investigation was unusual in that well-established antitrust precedent gives states wide latitude to regulate while “companies are free to collectively lobby the government for regulation.” 

“Enforcement staff expressed concerns about the legal and factual basis for the investigation,” Elias wrote. 

But Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim repeatedly pushed forward the investigation over staff requests for a delay in order to do a more thorough legal analysis. Delrahim later personally wrote automakers to inform them that the division had decided to examine the arrangement with California. 

The investigation began to unravel in October when automakers informed DOJ they had individually signed deals with California — a move Elias said “undercut” the department’s concerns the companies may have been colluding.

The investigation later pivoted to researching California’s commitment to buy vehicles for its state fleet only from automakers that comply with tougher standards.

The investigation closed in February, but a number of lawsuits over tailpipe emissions are still working their way through court.

Trump’s September decision to revoke the waiver that allows California to set tougher tailpipe emissions was challenged by the state, and the new mileage regulations were challenged in March by 23 states and various green groups.

Meanwhile, California is still working to sign agreements with automakers and expects to have a deal with Volvo released shortly.

Tags antitrust California Donald Trump emissions
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