By David Shepardson and Joseph White
NEW YORK (Reuters) - California's top clean air regulator told Reuters on Monday the state is willing to give automakers more flexibility to comply with vehicle greenhouse-gas emissions rules even as her agency prepares to fight the Trump administration over car and truck pollution standards.
Mary Nichols, who chairs the California Air Resources Board, said in an interview she thinks the Trump administration, California and automakers can reach agreement to revise and extend the standards.
"We think there's a way you could give some recognition to the concerns of the auto companies have raised that would not do fundamental damage to those standards," Nichols said, suggesting the state could endorse new "credits and flexibilities" or "tweaks."
She said the state's "precondition" for discussing changing the rules is that "you also need to talk to us about the next set of rules" extending to at least 2030.
Last week, Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said the standards on model year 2022 to 2025 vehicles were not appropriate and should be revised, reversing a decision by the Obama administration in January 2017 that had sought to lock in the rules.
Nichols said California and other states are "actively examining" a lawsuit challenging Pruitt's decision on the appropriateness of the 2025 rules before the administration proposes specific changes to the requirements.
A legal filing seeking to preserve states' rights is under consideration but does not mean they could not still try to reach agreement with automakers and the federal government.
"We can sue and talk at the same time," Nichols said.
The Obama standards, agreed to by California and major automakers, called for roughly doubling by 2025 the average fuel efficiency of new vehicles sold in the United States to about 50 miles (80 km) per gallon by 2025. Proponents said they could help spur innovation in clean technologies.
Auto industry executives asked the Trump administration to revise the Obama standards to make it less costly to meet complex emissions and fuel economy targets, which vary depending on the size of vehicles and whether they are classified as cars or trucks.
Nichols said federal and state governments and automakers should work on setting rules through 2030 and suggested California is open to a significant overhaul of the way the emissions rules work. She rejected the idea that there is a "crisis" facing automakers in meeting existing emissions rules.
She said current federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards do "not effectively incentivize" electric vehicles or other advanced vehicles. Those standards, commonly known as CAFE, were set in 1975 in response to the Arab oil embargos.
Nichols said the state could agree to new credits to account for zero emission ride sharing vehicles or revise earlier rules that held automakers accountable for "upstream" emissions from the generation of power for electric vehicles.
California has long been allowed by an EPA waiver to impose stricter standards than Washington does on vehicle emissions of some pollutants, but the state agreed to adopt the Obama emissions rules in 2011. And 12 other states, including New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, follow California’s lead on cleaner cars.
The Trump administration has not shared any data with California yet, and there have been no substantial talks with the state and federal regulators, Nichols said.
A primary concern among automakers is to avoid overlapping, conflicting regulatory standards. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sets Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, requirements that are not identical to the EPA limits on vehicle carbon dioxide emissions.
Automakers "agree and we do too that the CAFE standards have somewhat outlived their usefulness," Nichols said. Auto regulations should be focused on overall vehicle emissions as "the driving factor," she said.
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)