Chicago Automobile Trade Association

California vows to fight rollback of environmental power

September 20, 2019
President Trump on Sept. 18 revoked a decades-old rule that empowers California to set tougher car emissions standards than those required by the federal government — putting the state and the administration on a path to years of fighting in court.
California’s special authority to go further than the federal government in regulating auto pollution dates back to the 1960s, when Los Angeles was enveloped in a thick layer of smog that state officials came to see as a public health crisis. By the time the 1970 Clean Air Act took effect, the state had already enacted its own tailpipe emissions controls.
Concerned that each state would pass different regulations, Congress decided that the EPA would set vehicle pollution standards for the nation. But it carved out an exception for California, granting it a waiver to set its own rules, provided they were at least as stringent as the federal ones. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia now follow California’s regulations. Illinois does not.
The revocation comes a few months after California spurned the White House by secretly negotiating a deal with four major automakers. As part of the pact, the car manufacturers — Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW — agreed to voluntarily abide by California’s rules and increase fuel efficiency and reduce emissions, essentially ignoring the Trump administration’s plans to roll back tailpipe pollution standards.
"Crazy!" the president tweeted in response. "The Founders of Ford Motor Company and General Motors, are ‘rolling over’ at the weakness of current car company executives," he wrote.
Other automakers, such as General Motors, have reportedly been interested in joining the agreement. The administration’s move to strip California of its authority to set its own emissions standards has been viewed by some of the president’s critics as retaliatory.
"It’s clearly a big slap at California," said Ann Carlson, a professor of environmental law at UCLA. "It does make you wonder whether there’s a motivation here that’s political rather than legal."
Further escalating tensions, the Department of Justice has launched an antitrust investigation into whether the automakers that reached the voluntary emissions agreement with the state violated federal competition law.
The EPA and the Department of Transportation also sent a letter to California regulators earlier this month warning of "legal consequences" if the state did not abandon its agreement with automakers. The letter reiterated the administration’s long-held belief that only federal agencies have the authority to set fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions standards for cars.
The revocation of the state’s waiver is only one step in the administration’s plans to weaken car pollution standards.
Current rules put in place during the Obama administration require automakers to build increasingly efficient vehicles so that by 2025 the nation’s cars and trucks would average more than 50 miles per gallon.
Under Trump, the EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have proposed weakening the standards by freezing mileage targets at about 37 miles per gallon for cars after 2020. While acknowledging their plan would increase oil consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, the federal agencies have argued that the current standards endanger drivers by making new, safer cars too expensive.
In response to the EPA’s decision, Peter Welch, the NADA president, released a statement: "(The) NADA believes that the regulation ... should be done at the federal level for the entire country.
"One national standard for fuel economy will create much-needed regulatory certainty for the auto industry — and certainty for all American new-car and -truck buyers regardless of the state in which they reside.
"America’s franchised auto dealers continue to support continuous improvements in the fuel economy of the nation’s new-vehicle fleet, as well as federal fuel economy standards that help keep new vehicles affordable. If we lose affordability, we will lose new-vehicle sales. And if we lose new-vehicle sales, all we do is keep Americans in older, less safe and less fuel-efficient cars and trucks longer, and shift our nation’s environmental objectives into reverse."
Carlson, the environmental law professor, said that revoking California’s waiver would not necessarily harm state regulators’ deal with automakers because the agreement is voluntary. In fact, the move could backfire on the administration, she said.
If California’s waiver is revoked and the current Obama-era standards remain in place, automakers actually could be forced to lower emissions levels more than they had agreed to as part of their pact with California.
The California standards have contributed to not only reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere by billions of tons, but also to directly promoting the development of new automotive technologies, from the catalytic converter to the hybrid engine to the electric car. Those advancements also have been critical to keeping U.S. manufacturers competitive with other makers from around the world, as guidelines elsewhere have frequently outpaced U.S. federal requirements.


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