By reaching an agreement with California, the auto companies want to avoid a situation in which the Trump administration requires one thing, and California (with the dozen or so states that usually follow it) requires another. The fear is that a divided market would, at a minimum, put automakers to the trouble and expense of certifying they meet two different sets of standards, and, at worst, manufacturing different vehicle models for different markets. Other auto companies also reportedly expressed interest in the California alternative. The settlement sidestepped the president’s plan, reportedly enraging him.
Antitrust prohibits companies from conspiring to restrict competition. But under well-established legal principles, they may jointly lobby government for rules they prefer, and comply with those rules once adopted. And companies may independently and unilaterally meet whatever voluntary standards they wish.
The Justice Department’s antitrust division has a long and proud history of independence from the White House. But circumstances surrounding the investigation have raised suspicion that its motivation is less than pure. It may succeed in squelching the California initiative through intimidation. For emphasis, lawyers for the Transportation Department and the E.P.A. sent a menacing letter to California officials warning that the state’s agreement with the car companies appears to violate federal law.
All this adds uncertainty and delay over the rules the auto industry must follow. Now, the question of whether the E.P.A. can revoke a waiver it has already granted will be thrown to the courts
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