Trump Seeks to Revoke California Emissions Waiver

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Multiple outlets are reporting that the Trump administration is poised to revoke California’s de facto authority to set nationwide car emissions and fuel economy standards, originally granted as a waiver to the 1970 Clean Air Act.

According to the New York Times, White House Prepares to Revoke California’s Right to Set Tougher Pollution Rules:

The potential challenge to California’s authority, which would be a stinging broadside to the state’s governor and environmentalists, has been widely anticipated. But what’s notable is that the administration would be decoupling its challenge to California from its broader plan to weaken federal fuel economy standards, the latest sign that its plans for that rollback have fallen into disarray.

Since the early months of the administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Transportation Department have been pursuing one of Mr. Trump’s most consequential attempts to weaken regulations designed to fight climate change: A sweeping rollback of Obama-era rules designed to cut the emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases.

The root of the dispute is the administration’s attempt to roll back tougher standards set by Trump’s predecessor. As the AP reports, Official: Trump to challenge California authority on mileage:

The Trump administration has proposed freezing gas mileage requirements for automakers at 2021 levels, thus eliminating Obama-era regulations that require them to rise about 5% per year on average for the fleet of new cars sold in the U.S. A final proposal is expected next month.

Trump’s own administration, in documents proposing to freeze the standards, puts the cost of meeting the Obama-era requirements at around $2,700 per vehicle. It claims buyers would save that much by 2025, over standards in place in 2016. But that number is disputed by environmental groups and is more than double the estimates from the Obama administration.

Thwarting the proposed tougher standards was a top priority for carmakers when Trump became president, and they deployed lobbying muscle accordingly. Be careful what you wish for. As the Wall Street Journal reports in Trump Administration Expedites Challenge to California on Auto-Emission Rules:

Within days of his taking office, car companies began lobbying Mr. Trump for relief on the Obama era standards, arguing they were too strict and didn’t take into account the shift in consumer preference for trucks and SUVs that burn more fuel.

Executives, however, didn’t expect such a drastic rollback by the administration, which wants to freeze the Obama era fuel economy standards at 2020 levels, or roughly 37 miles a gallon. The Obama-era rules call for annual increases in fuel economy to an average of roughly 50 miles a gallon by mid-decade.

California Waiver

The Trump capitulation didn’t pass muster with California, which under the authority of the 1970 waiver, de facto, sets the floor for nationwide standards, as carmakers don’t want to produce two versions of each model, one to comply with California standards, and another to be sold elsewhere. Twelve other states and the District of Columbia formally follow California’s lead, and adopt common standards (as does, IIRC, Canada).

CBS News,Trump plans to revoke California fuel economy standards explains:

California has had stricter fuel economy and auto emissions standards for decades. The state’s laws were enacted before the passage of the Clean Air Act to curb the automobile air pollution in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Congress granted California a waiver to make stricter standards law in the state for public health reasons.

Over to the AP:

The waiver has allowed California, the state with the highest population and by far the biggest economy, to steer the rest of the nation toward cutting down on car and truck emissions that pollute the air and alter the climate.

Four carmakers, BMW, Ford, Honda, and Volkswagen, had separately agreed with California in July to “voluntarily” comply with new standards, which would be neither as stringent as the rules Trump regulators seeks to roll back, nor as loose as the proposed Trump alternative. The companies sought to resolve regulatory uncertainty – and avoid protracted legal battles over whatever new standards will apply (see my previous post, Carmakers and California Agree on Emissions Rules, for background and context). GM and Toyota have yet to take a position.

What the Trump Administration is presenting them with instead is an inevitable legal nightmare, where it is uncertain which regulatory standards will apply. Over to the AP:

Administration moves to rescind authority that Congress granted probably would end up in court. When President George W. Bush challenged California’s greenhouse gas emissions and mileage-setting ability, California fought it. The Obama administration subsequently dropped the Bush effort.


California has sued the Trump administration 27 times on environmental matters alone, often as part of a group of states. Counting preliminary injunctions, California has won in court 19 times, said Sarah Lovenheim, a spokeswoman for California Attorney General Xavier Becerra.

Becerra, a Democrat, made clear his state would battle this move as well. “California will continue its advance toward a cleaner future. We’re prepared to defend the standards that make that promise a reality,” he said in a statement.

It looks likely that when this issue is litigated, the administration will lose. Over to the AP:

Margo Oge, director of the EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality from 1994 to 2012, said the Trump administration is likely to lose in a court challenge of California’s powers.

“There is nothing under the Clean Air Act that allows the EPA to revoke a waiver that was given to the state,” she said. “They cannot do that, in my view, based on 20 years managing the program.”

Meanwhile, the planet burns.

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