Antitrust Probe Opened Into VW and Three Others Endorsing California Emissions Pact

The Justice Department has opened an antitrust probe into four automakers that formed a pact with California to compromise on tailpipe emissions, effectively circumventing federal regulators, last July.

Over the summer, Ford Motor Co., Honda Motor Co., BMW AG, and Volkswagen Group announced a joint agreement with the California Air Resources Board to adhere to fueling standards slightly lower than Obama-era rules but still significantly higher than the Trump administration’s proposal from 2018. The Justice Department is seeking to determine whether or not that qualifies as a violation of federal competition laws.

While jointly adhering to a more-stringent standard over one that has yet to be finalized doesn’t really seem like it should be a problem, automakers cooperatively endorsing a new standard leaves room for interpretation. The companies could have said nothing and then simply maintained higher standards on their own. The Wall Street Journal reported on the investigation Friday morning, suggesting it was still in the early stages and was currently focusing on how we came to this juncture in the gas war.

Although the fight has been an ongoing issue through the Trump presidency, in February of this year White House officials terminated negotiations. Talks had been breaking down for months and it was presumed the administration would simply move ahead with its original rollback proposal and seek to end California’s ability to self-regulate — an issue the state previously said it would defend in court if need be. Congressional hearings also failed to move things along but did highlight exactly how contentious the situation had become.

In early July, a letter manifested. Signed by 23 governors, the document urged the Trump administration to reconsider the proposed rollback. Led by California Governor Gavin Newsom, the letter suggests a “common-sense approach” to national requirements with an emphasis on raising standards. Later that month, the four automakers openly endorsed the proposed compromise, saying they’d voluntarily back the Californian standard. While little more than a promise that could be easily broken later, it was enough to create a blip on the Justice Department’s radar.

We’ve been following the gas war since day one and it’s only grown uglier. While we can’t say how the anti-trust probe will progress, it’s not encouraging. Any prospect of compromise seems long gone at this point, with litigation being the probable pathway forward.

a version of this article first appeared on TTAC