States sue EPA over plan to weaken vehicle emissions standards

17 states and the District of Columbia file joint lawsuit against EPA's proposed rollback.

AT A PRESS BRIEFING AT THE STATE CAPITOL ON MAY 1, 2018 IN SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA, Gov. Jerry Brown and state Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced that California has joined 16 other states and the District of Columbia in suing the EPA over vehicle emissions standards. CREDIT: Stephen Lam/Getty Images
AT A PRESS BRIEFING AT THE STATE CAPITOL ON MAY 1, 2018 IN SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA, Gov. Jerry Brown and state Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced that California has joined 16 other states and the District of Columbia in suing the EPA over vehicle emissions standards. CREDIT: Stephen Lam/Getty Images

California officials have repeatedly vowed not to back down to attempts by the Trump administration to weaken the state’s environmental regulations, especially the progress it has made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The state kept its word on Tuesday when California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said he is joining more than a dozen other states in filing a lawsuit challenging an EPA determination, published on April 13, that the fuel efficiency requirements for cars and light trucks are too stringent and must be revised. At the direction of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, the agency is now in the process of rewriting those standards that aimed to slash carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles.

In the lawsuit, California and the others assert that the EPA has violated the Administrative Procedure Act, failed to follow its own clean car regulations, and violated the Clean Air Act, Becerra said Tuesday at a press briefing in Sacramento, California. He was joined by Gov. Jerry Brown and Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board.

“My message is simple to the EPA: do your job,” Becerra said. “The state of California is not looking to pick a fight but we are ready for one, especially when the stakes are so high for our people and our planet.”


At the press briefing, Brown did not hold back — he referred to Pruitt as “outlaw Pruitt,” accusing the EPA chief of “running roughshod” over the health of the American people and the climate by seeking to implement standards that would weaken the rules already on the books.

In the lawsuit, filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, California, together with 16 other states and the District of Columbia, argued that the EPA failed to follow its own regulations and violated the Clean Air Act by issuing a notice that it planned to reevaluate emission standards for model year 2022-2025.

The federal standard the states are suing to protect is estimated to reduce carbon pollution equivalent to 134 coal power plants burning for a year and to save drivers $1,650 per vehicle.


Joining California in filing the lawsuit are Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and the District of Columbia. This coalition represents about 43 percent of the new car sales market nationally and 44 percent of the U.S. population.

In 2012, the Obama administration approved new auto emissions standards, with 2018 model year vehicles required to average 38.3 miles per gallon of gasoline and 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. The 2025 target was set as part of a compromise reached between the Obama administration and the auto industry.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Pruitt wants to freeze fuel economy targets at the levels required for vehicles sold in 2020, and leave those in place through 2026. Instead of average vehicle fuel economy ratcheting up to 55 miles per gallon by 2025, it would stall out at 42 miles per gallon, the newspaper reported last week.

In April, the EPA announced plans to roll back tailpipe emissions standards for automakers established by the Obama administration. The decision is expected to increase greenhouse gases and other harmful emissions from the transportation sector — the largest carbon-emitting sector in the nation.

According to Pruitt, proposed greenhouse gas emission standards for cars, pick-up trucks, and sport utility vehicles for model years 2022-2025 are too aggressive. The EPA is working with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to develop a new rule setting greenhouse gas emission standards.


At Tuesday’s press briefing, Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board, said Pruitt wants to roll back the vehicle emissions standards “based on no new information or facts.” He is seeking to halt the progress that regulators and the automotive industry have made toward building more fuel efficient vehicles that emit less harmful pollutants, Nichols said.

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) accused Pruitt of basing his determination about the emissions standards “almost entirely on auto industry statements, without any independent analysis.”

“Scott Pruitt is recklessly disregarding the vast technical and economic bases for America’s Clean Car Standards, and instead launching an all-out attack that risks Americans’ health and their pocketbooks,” EDF General Counsel Vickie Patton, said Tuesday in a statement. “We fully support the states’ legal challenge to Pruitt’s unsupported and unacceptable action.”

The complaint represents Becerra’s 10th lawsuit against the EPA and 17th environmental lawsuit against the Trump administration. Of the 10 legal cases that have reached a conclusion, Becerra said his office has lost none of them.

“So while people may have to decide against believing Donald Trump or believing the state of California, at the end of the day the track record in court between Donald Trump and the state of California is clear,” he said.

The lawsuit is the latest in a build up of tension between California and the Trump administration. Just one day after Pruitt told lawmakers on Capitol Hill last week that the agency did not have plans “at present” to target California’s special fuel economy waiver, the Trump administration reportedly announced plans to revoke California’s waiver to set its own standards.

Nichols, however, said the state has seen only news reports about the Trump administration’s plan to attack the waiver. At the press briefing, Nichols said California would not “dignify” the reports until it hears directly from the administration about any plans to do away with the waiver that would let the state set its own, stronger standards.

If the EPA attempts to revoke California’s waiver, automakers may face years of uncertainty as the California Air Resources Board and the EPA battle over the waiver in court. Courts have continually upheld California’s waiver multiple times since its inception in 1979.

The Institute for Policy Integrity at NYU School of Law has released a new report analyzing EPA’s decision to withdraw the standards that concludes the agency’s basis for withdrawing the standards is not grounded in fact or economic analysis. For example, EPA cites factors such as lower fuel prices and concerns about the growth of electric vehicles as reasons to reverse its earlier decision, but both fuel prices and electric vehicle sales are in fact rising.

“In withdrawing the 2022-2025 greenhouse-gas standards, EPA arbitrarily ignored its own prior analysis as well as the facts,” Bethany Davis Noll, one of the co-authors of the report, said Tuesday in a statement. “The agency is acting without clear justification and creating a lot of legal question marks.”