It’s Official: Trump Revokes California’s Power to Regulate Automobile Emissions

Fighting smog is a very old tradition in California. Photo: Ted Soqui/Corbis via Getty Images

It’s been in the works for a good while, and the president announced it was about to happen during his fundraising trip to California earlier this week in one of many taunts he flung at the Golden State’s Democratic officeholders. But now the Environmental Protection Agency has made it official: It is revoking the Clean Air Act waiver that has allowed California to set its own tougher auto-emissions policies for nearly a half-century. The move is part of a more general Trump-administration drive to reverse the stronger emissions and fuel-economy standards imposed by the Obama administration nationally and by California and the 13 states (including New York) that track its clean-air rules. CalMatters explains the Trump strategy:

Even before [Trump] took office, automakers pushed his transition team to revisit the Obama-era clean car standards. Automakers weren’t the only ones, either: The New York Times discovered a secretive oil-industry campaign to gut the fuel economy regulations that threaten their bottom line. 

In April 2018, the Trump administration concluded that the Obama-era standards for model year 2022 through 2025 light-duty vehicles “may be too stringent” and called for revisions. A few months later, the Trump administration unveiled new plans to freeze greenhouse gas and miles-per-gallon standards at 2020 levels through model year 2026. That’s expected to flatline the fleet’s fuel efficiency at an average of 37 miles-per-gallon.

Pushing California and the states that follow its auto-emissions and fuel-economy rules back into line is an integral part of this strategy. The administration waxed furious when California reached a surprise deal with four major automakers (Ford, Honda, BMW, and Volkswagen) in July to manufacture cars achieving a 50 mpg fuel-efficiency goal by 2026, even threatening an antitrust action against the companies cooperating with the state. Today’s announcement was just the latest, if the most dramatic, development in Trump’s fight with California and with any and all proponents of policies to combat climate change.

Now the fight will move to the federal courts, where California will argue that the administration didn’t follow the necessary procedures in revoking the Clean Air Act waiver, as Rachel Becker and Julie Cart explain:

Julia Stein, supervising attorney at UCLA’s Frank G. Wells Environmental Law Clinic, estimates the lawsuit could take up to 18 months. In the meantime, California may ask the court to keep its waiver in place until any litigation is resolved, Stein said. 

California’s air board is confident of its legal standing, in part, state officials say, because the federal agency has failed to make a scientific or technical case for the waiver decision. 

“Their work’s been bad. Their facts are bad,” said Craig Segall, assistant chief counsel for the California Air Resources Board, referring to the EPA’s analysis, which has been widely criticized. Anything can happen in litigation, he acknowledged, but “we’ve got the better of the argument, and it helps to have facts on your side.” 

In 18 months, of course, we could have a very different administration in Washington — one that isn’t committed to heavy-handed intervention by the federal government to protect the fossil-fuel industry. If the case makes it to the U.S. Supreme Court, it could be an epochal test of support for the alleged conservative principal of federalism among the Court’s conservative majority.

If the administration gets its way on the California waiver, says Energy Innovation, a think tank publishing its views at Fortune, it will cost consumers $160 billion in higher fuel costs through 2050 and help drive transportation emissions 10 percent higher by 2035 — which is not the trend we need. More important, it would signal a national surrender to climate change and its potentially catastrophic effects.

Unsurprisingly, environmental groups are lining up to back California, as The Verge reports:

“Donald Trump is committing an unprecedented and illegal attack on the Clean Air Act that will increase pollution in our communities and steal money from people’s wallets,” Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, a nonprofit advocacy group, said in a statement. Brune also called Trump’s announcement an “indefensible attack” that is “nothing more than pure vindictiveness from an Administration set on giving Big Oil a polluting pass at the expense of our climate and the well-being of American families,” and said the president’s actions “will not go unchecked.”

Praising Trump’s action, meanwhile, was the National Automobile Dealers Association.

You can add this (and all the associated climate-change issues) to the list of very big things that are at stake in the 2020 election.

Trump Revokes California’s Power to Regulate Auto Emissions