Also amenable to compromise are some of the automakers, who favor a more moderate approach to a regulatory rollback than the one favored by Mr. Pruitt. But “automakers are in different positions” on how to proceed, said one person close to their thinking, with some companies more focused on rolling back the standards through 2025, and others more eager to have a broader discussion on a compromise with California and standards through 2030.
A person close to the Trump administration said White House officials were also pushing the E.P.A. toward a compromise with California. The White House, this person said, is more in tune with concerns from some automakers who feel that the rollbacks they lobbied for have triggered an overzealous response from the E.P.A., bringing the federal government to the brink of a battle with California that could throw the entire auto market into disarray.
Mr. Pruitt has been a wild card, eager to score a clear victory in dismantling environmental regulations. In one sign of his zeal — and his apparent disconnect with the position of the auto industry — he has openly described the planned rewriting of auto emissions standards as a “rollback,” much to the chagrin of auto lobbyists who have long said that formulation does not accurately describe the changes they are seeking.
Big obstacles remain to reaching a compromise. California and E.P.A. officials have met at least three times in the last few months to discuss auto emissions regulations. The latest round of talks took place in California last week between Mary D. Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, and William Wehrum, the E.P.A.’s senior clean air adviser.
A person close to the California negotiators characterized the meeting as “highly non-substantive,” even as he said a compromise remained possible when talks resumed. But a person close to the administration had a more positive take, calling the talks “productive.”
The stakes are high. Introduced in 2012, the federal rules would require automakers to nearly double the average fuel economy of new cars and trucks to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. If fully implemented, they would cut oil consumption by about 12 billion barrels over the lifetime of all the cars affected by the regulations and reduce carbon dioxide pollution by about six billion tons, according to the E.P.A.’s projections.
“Clearly, the Trump administration has gained some political capital by looking really tough on this and proposing a reversal of the Obama-era standards,” said Barry Rabe, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan. “But the Trump administration has also gotten out beyond what the auto industry has wanted throughout, which is substantial flexibility in meeting these standards.”
“They can now claim to have stood up to California, but they also realize they need to come back to the negotiating table,” Mr. Rabe said. “It’s clear legal and political combat with California would open up enormous uncertainty. So it sounds like a bit of dialing back.”