EPA doesn’t want California to ‘dictate’ the country’s car pollution rules

State's attorney general vows to sue the EPA if standards are weakened.

Drivers use a high occupancy vehicle lane  on the 118 near Simi Valley, California. CREDIT: David McNew/Getty Images
Drivers use a high occupancy vehicle lane on the 118 near Simi Valley, California. CREDIT: David McNew/Getty Images

California is on the front lines of President Donald Trump’s efforts to rollback car and light truck emissions standards as a battle brews between the administration and state officials.

Trump’s presidency has made for an interesting dynamic in California where state officials are taking action to drastically reduce air pollution in order to protect the health of its residents and fight climate change.

On the one hand, California officials are worried that Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wants to turn the clock back to the days when cities in the state were choked with smog.

On the other hand, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and like-minded policy-makers are afraid that if California succeeds in creating a clean energy state with a strong economy, it will set a good example for other states to follow.

A big change is expected to come later this week, when the Trump administration announces that national efforts to cut vehicle greenhouse gas emissions should be relaxed. The EPA has completed a draft decision outlining the rationale for easing fuel efficiency regulations for model-year 2022-2025 cars and light trucks.


At the state level, there is concern that the Trump administration also may seek to revoke California’s waiver that allows the state to set its own fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles.

California’s clean air waiver

Since amendments to the Clean Air Act were signed into law in 1970, California has led the nation in setting strict fuel economy standards for automobiles. The state is allowed to develop its own vehicle emissions rules that are stricter than the federal government’s based on a waiver it received from the Obama administration. This waiver program exists because when the Clean Air Act was written, California’s smog problem was especially bad.

In  2004, California passed a climate change law and asked for an EPA waiver to develop its own greenhouse gas standards for cars. That waiver was denied under President George W. Bush but later granted under President Obama.

Pruitt and William Wehrum, the chief of the EPA’s air office, visited California this week to meet with industry and state officials. On Tuesday, Wehrum reportedly discussed proposed changes to the nation’s fuel efficiency standards for automobiles with Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board and a strong advocate for enacting climate change rules.


During his meeting with Nichols on Tuesday, Wehrum reportedly discussed the EPA’s decision to relax efficiency standards ahead of an April 1 deadline to make the rule change public.

For years, as both an industry attorney and a top official in Bush’s EPA, Wehrum has worked to weaken the nation’s air pollution rules. In 2006, Wehrum was the Bush official who fought to deny the waiver to California to allow the state to enact more stringent air regulations.

But during the Obama administration, California was granted special authority to regulate tailpipe pollution. The waiver, under the Clean Air Act, allows the state to maintain its own, stricter car emissions rules that other states can adopt.

The state also received a waiver for a program pushing automakers to sell more “zero-emissions vehicles.” New York and eight other states have also adopted the zero-emissions mandate, a trend that is seen as boosting U.S. electric car sales.

In an editorial published last weekend by the Press Democrat of Santa Rosa, California, the newspaper wrote that the states that have voluntarily adopted California’s stricter standards continue to support the state’s leadership role. “We’ve come a long way together,” Steven Flint, the director of the air resources division of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, told the New York Times.

National emission standards

But the leadership role played by California in cutting emissions is what troubles the Trump administration and fossil fuel companies. Two weeks ago, Pruitt questioned whether states such as California should be able to enact their own tougher emissions rules for automobiles.


“California is not the arbiter” of pollution rules for the rest of the nation, Pruitt said in an interview with Bloomberg TV. California’s state limits on greenhouse gas emissions “shouldn’t and can’t dictate to the rest of the country what these levels are going to be,” the administrator said.

In January, at a Senate hearing, Pruitt was asked by Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) whether he would promise to continue to grant the state’s waiver under the federal Clean Air Act. Pruitt declined to make any promises, telling the senator that he would “review” the issue.

As part of the Trump administration’s regulation-cutting mission, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released a proposal on Tuesday to cancel an increase in civil penalties for automakers whose vehicles fail to meet fuel-economy standards required under the corporate average fuel economy program. The Obama administration had increased fuel economy program civil penalties after Congress ordered all federal agencies to update their penalties for inflation.

Meanwhile, the EPA has sent a draft of the decision on the auto emissions standards to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. The final determination will be signed by April 1, Bloomberg reported.

Ahead of this decision, a coalition of conservative groups sent a letter to Pruitt on Wednesday urging him to revoke California’s waiver to set its own strict fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles. The groups said they are opposed to California’s “stated goal” of removing all gasoline-powered vehicles from the roads and replacing them with electric vehicles. The 11 groups that signed the letter include the Koch-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute, FreedomWorks, and Americans for Tax Reform.

Proponents of the current regulations, however, contend strong fuel economy standards mean cleaner air and lower costs for consumers, while high civil penalties promote compliance with those standards. “Cheap fines, which allow automakers to easily violate the standards, is yet another example of Donald Trump putting corporate polluters above the American people,” Alejandra Núñez, a Sierra Club senior attorney, said Wednesday in a statement

Increasing investment

California is prepared to sue the EPA if it tries to weaken Obama-era vehicle efficiency standards, the state’s attorney general said Tuesday. The state also has threatened to move forward on its own if the EPA weakens the federal standards. The current federal requirement for 2018 model year vehicles is 38.3 miles per gallon of gasoline. By 2025, the requirement would rise to roughly 51 miles per gallon.

“We are going to do everything that can been done to defend these standards,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra told Reuters in an interview. “So far, when we have been challenged on environmental standards we have had a good record in court. We haven’t lost a case.”

From an economic standpoint, fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards for vehicles has helped to increase investment in the nation’s manufacturing sector, according to the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of the nation’s largest labor union and environmental organizations.

“If the EPA opts to write new rules, we will be watching to see whether those rules remain strong and continue the current trajectory of innovation, investment, and job growth,” Zoe Lipman, director of vehicles and advanced transportation for the BlueGreen Alliance, said in a statement. “Stepping away from fuel economy leadership would put key elements of the nation’s economic progress in jeopardy.”

Loosened standards could save the auto industry money but could lead to American industry falling behind in innovation in the global market. Other countries are demanding cleaner, more efficient vehicles, the Press Democrat wrote in its editorial.

A total of $76 billion has been allocated to new and promised investment in the nation’s automotive plants since 2008. Some of that $76 billion represents business-as-usual investment. But a significant portion is new or enhanced investment in products and manufacturing processes to meet the nation’s fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards, according to the BlueGreen Alliance.

Beyond weakening the nation’s fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles, the Trump administration could target California for its bold climate programs. California is seeking to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 40 percent by 2030, a goal that would be in jeopardy if it cannot hold automobiles to a high fuel standard.