Seventeen States Sue EPA for Allowing California to Set Tougher Vehicle Emissions Standards

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

California has long enjoyed a special position in regulating car emissions since the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, and has been allowed to set its own standards, under various grants of regulatory authority. The Trump administration revoked a waiver that since 2013 allowed California so set stricter standards,  but this March, EPA administrator, Michael Regan, restored the permission.

The Wall Street Journal summarized the state of play in a March article:

The Biden administration restored California’s ability to set stricter air-pollution limits for auto makers, ending a conflict with the state’s air-quality regulators that began under former President Donald Trump.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials said Wednesday that their decision to restore California’s ability to set emissions standards for passenger cars and trucks would improve air quality and combat climate change.

California, the nation’s biggest car market, had long set emissions standards that exceed requirements set by the federal government, using the power of a waiver it was granted under the Clean Air Act. More than a dozen states follow its regulations, and auto makers have used California’s standards as their guidelines to avoid manufacturing different cars for varying standards.

League of Conservation Voters Board Chair Carol M. Browner, who led the EPA during the Clinton administration, said Wednesday’s move to boost fuel efficiency and electric vehicles “is especially welcome news” as the Russian invasion of Ukraine is helping to drive “up the price of oil and gasoline.”

Marlo Lewis, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, called the administration’s move an effort “to rig auto markets in favor of high-mpg and electric vehicles” that “will be challenged in court, and the administration deserves to lose.” He said the “EPA’s action will have no discernible impacts on air quality, energy security or climate change. It will, however, further restrict auto makers’ freedom to produce the vehicles consumers want at prices they can afford.”

Last Friday, seventeen Republican attorneys general sued to overturn the California  exemption. Per The Hill:

The lawsuit alleges EPA Administrator Michael Regan violated the Constitution’s doctrine of equal sovereignty by allowing California an exemption from the Clean Air Act, which the Golden State used to impose more stringent emissions limits than the nationwide limit.

“The Act simply leaves California with a slice of its sovereign authority that Congress withdraws from every other state,” West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R) said in a statement. “The EPA cannot selectively waive the Act’s preemption for California alone because that favoritism violates the states’ equal sovereignty.”

Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit include the attorneys general for Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and Utah.

Since automakers don’t wish to produce different models – one California-compliant, and otherwise – allowing California to set its own standards establishes a de facto nationwide floor for vehicle emissions standards. Per the Los Angeles Times:

California’s vehicle emission standards are some of the toughest in the nation, and the 17 Republican attorneys general argue the EPA’s decision to let the Golden State set its own rules forces the rest of the country to follow suit. The state first developed the standards in 2004 but was barred from implementing them until 2009, when the EPA granted California permission to impose tough restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks.

…[The seventeen states] claim the EPA’s decision would require all states to adopt California’s strict vehicle emission standards for all new cars under the authority of the Clean Air Act.


Missouri Atty. Gen. Eric Schmitt said in a statement that if California is allowed to set nationwide standards, then manufacturing would become “astronomically expensive, and those additional costs are passed onto consumers.” He added that the Golden State’s standards are “oppressive.”

This isn’t the first time that Republican attorney generals have targeted EPA regulatory efforts. While neither party has covered itself in glory on environmental policy, particularly that pertaining to climate change, the Democrats have been somewhat better than Republicans.  Republican AGs and industry groups previously sued to thwart implementation of the 2015 Clean Power Plan.  They have larger ambitions, and have mounted a wider challenge – currently pending before the United States Supreme Court – to EPA authority to regulate emissions under the Clean Air Act. According to The Hill:

[West Virginia AG Patrick] Morrissey is also suing the EPA in a pending Supreme Court case that could have major implications for the agency’s authority to regulate emissions under the Clean Air Act. In addition to several fossil fuel companies, other plaintiffs in the case include many of the same states involved in the Friday lawsuit, as well as Alaska and South Dakota.

The current Supreme Court has not shied away from reconsidering well-settled precedent. So, I wouldn’t be surprised if the current conservative majority were to take the opportunity presented to it to scale back EPA emissions Withregulatory authority.

California’s stricter emissions standards became a major partisan issue during the Trump administration.The LA Times fleshes out historical detail that I only briefly summarized in my lead paragraph:

California first negotiated its own set of tougher emission standards with Congress during the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970. The state has a carve-out agreement in the Clean Air Act but each year requires a waiver from the EPA. The 2009 update reinstated a 40-year interpretation of the act that was rescinded by the Bush administration and reinstated under the Obama administration.

In 2019, the EPA threatened to cut federal transportation funds to California for not submitting timely pollution-control plans. The open feud between the state and the Trump administration seemed to come to a head after California secretly negotiated a deal with four major automakers to voluntarily follow the state’s emission rules and increase fuel efficiency.

At the time, the EPA rescinded a decades-old rule that allowed California to set tougher-than-required car emissions standards than those required by federal regulators. After the waiver was rescinded, California sued the federal government, arguing the tougher standards were necessary to improve air quality in the state.

Three years later, under the Biden administration in 2022, the EPA reversed its hostile stance toward California’s vehicle emission standards and reinstated the waiver under the Clean Air Act. Multiple attorneys general called California’s special treatment unconstitutional, including many of the states that joined the recent petition.

In March, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, Republican leader of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said, “President Biden’s strict auto emissions regulations are yet another example of this administration putting a radical rush-to-green regulatory regime ahead of restoring America’s energy dominance and leadership.”

It looks increasingly likely that Republicans will recapture control of Congress in the upcoming midterms, thus threatening the Biden administration’s modest environmental regulatory agenda, let alone necessary measures that might mitigate the looming climate catastrophe.

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  1. Cat Burglar

    There is stronger Republican support for air pollution control in California than there is in other states.

    A lot of it is down to geography: the huge Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, and the LA Basin, trap air pollution in uniquely nasty ways. One of the ironies is that much of the San Francisco area’s air pollution ends up in the southern San Joaquin Valley, backed up against the Sierra and Tehachapis, so the Dem region is responsible for a lot of the Republican valley’s high childhood asthma rate.

    If history is any indication, I would look for a reaction to this case from the California congressional delegation that might puzzle their party members from other states.

    1. JBird4049

      Yes, being able to breathe is quite wonderful and to understand why California has always had tougher standards than the EPA’s one only has to look at the photographs of Los Angeles or really most of metropolitan California. Between the incoming winds, the chains of hills and mountains that block them, plus all the cars, smog is a real challenge.

      What I do not understand is why anyone beyond extreme libertarians would challenge California’s fifty year exemption because similar exemptions, modifications exist in Medicaid, unemployment, gun control, abortion, and agriculture. Some of it explicitly under federal regulations and law and others just because. California has a much more generous Medicaid program (Medi-Cal) while Texas’ is awful. Different causes, but for the same reason; look at how Texas (and to a lesser extent California and Florida) determines much of what school textbooks are because it is such a big buyer that textbook makers will print for them, ignoring smaller states. Because of budgets, school systems will buy the cheaper, mass produced books. It is a de facto standard for the nation.

      People might look at the system and see a jury-rigged mess or unfairness, but California do not want Texas gun control or Mississippi abortion laws and they don’t want California’s; then there are the laws and regulations for the local environment. Earthquakes and air pollution for California, hurricanes for all the states along the Gulf of México, and then there is Tornado Alley. I do not need a storm cellar, but I would like not to be crushed by the next major earthquake.

      Fifty states, vastly different in size and climates, with over 300 million people cannot be governed as if they are from the same cookie cutters. It almost seems like some people want to pump up the anger and divisiveness.

      1. Glossolalia

        The goal is to maintain the exemptions and modifications that follow right wing ideology while removing the ones that follow left wing ideology.

  2. IMOR

    They have no legitimate standing, and the attenuated grounds this article says they’re attempting to use to create it is weak beyond belief as a result. Unless the Federalist Society accomplished its [familyblog] dream of reimposing the Articles of Confederation while I wasn’t looking.

    1. KD

      Is that up to Alito, Thomas, Barrett, Kavanaugh, and Gorsuch to decide if they have standing or not?

    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      There is no law or legitimacy at the Supreme Christian Sharia Law Court. If they feel like finding for the Republican AGs , they will find for the Republican AGs.

      If a bunch of other StateGovs say . . . okay, if California has been declared no longer uniquely sovereign, then all states are equally sovereign in this pollution control matter. And if that bunch of states all state-gov-voluntarily agreed to accept California standards, then what would the pro-pollution state govs do in response? Because if the Christian Sharia Court abolishes the concept of “law” by finding for the pro pollution states, then there is no more such thing as “law”. What there is . . . is force and power. And the states more willing and able to exert force and power against their enemy states is the group of states which will set pollution policy.

      1. Susan the other

        After the latest disgraceful behavior by the Supremes, colluding to get all their ducks in a Roe decision, I have no confidence left in them whatsoever.

  3. Carolinian

    As the article says this waiver has existed for decades. Seems like if there was a successful SC strategy against it it would have been tried by now.

    One should say that many of the more recent innovations in gasoline cars are directly related to the need for higher mpg versus performance. My 2017 has “modes” for its automatic transmission that give preference to tamped down acceleration in order to increase mileage and I like this just fine. However there is a “sport” mode that will cause the car to shift more like a traditional car. My six speed automatic (mostly replaced in newer cars by the somewhat controversial CVT) is also about the need to maintain an optimum RPM for mileage.

    Add in various changes to save weight and one wonders whether there are many available means to further increase mileage in conventional ICE vehicles.

    So my question would be whether these once unusual challenges are really about EVs which I believe CA has vowed to make mandatory by the end of the decade. Given the great need for more infrastructure, questions about batteries, that would be a major change that is about more than just smog.

    1. ambrit

      Savants correct me if I err, but there has been no major move yet towards all electric drive wheels. Get rid of the ‘power train’ and send electricity direct to electric motors in each wheel. Four wheel drive, incredible acceleration, mucho weight loss, significant loss of mechanical friction, which equalls energy savings, etc.
      Use small internal combustion engines to power what will be essentially all electric cars.
      Direct drive:

      1. Carolinian

        Sorry it was 2035 and “autonomous” vehicles by 2030.

        My Hyundai is so quiet it might as well be an electric car. Only tire noise. Clearly the public is being prepared for the EV experience.

        Although with gasoline climbing and summer here I’m thinking about taking up with my bicycle again. I have to be careful though about my knees given previous tendon problems.

        1. ambrit

          I’m wondering if the public is being prepped for a return to “Old Fashioned Values,” such as, only wealthy people deserve their own vehicular transportation. Like back in the Edwardian Era. Everyone else, public busses or shanks mare.

        2. herman_sampson

          Bicycling actually strengthens my knees.
          But as only one element to contract climate change (and all measures need to reflect this), gasoline needs to go to $10 a gallon after busses are $.25 a ride and run every 15 minutes. All measures must make it as painless as possible to change. How to address rural citizens is beyond me at present.

          1. ambrit

            The old fashioned form of address for “country folk” is either “Peasant!” or “My good man, come here!”
            I can see how that would appeal to Oligarchs the world over.

      2. Jeff Hails

        As a motorsport enthusiast and electronics technician, my perspective is there is no disadvantage to electric propulsion no matter the method applied.
        First, efficiency of energy conversion. An IC engine might convert at best 25% of the energy into usable work. The rest is wasted in heat and mechanical losses. Electronically commutated electric motors, even poorly implemented are operating in the 80% range.
        IC engines operate most efficiently over a very narrow rpm range while electric motors can maintain efficiency over a much broader rpm range thereby requiring less torque conversion to provide the force needed.
        As far as wheel direct drive motors, the downside is massive increase in unsprung weight. The effect of that is handling problems that require massive compensations in the suspension to maintain drive-ability and control.
        I understand the allure of direct drive motors but from my perspective the cost benefit advantage goes toward axle driven motors. No handling deficiencies and minimal mechanical losses.

        1. ambrit

          Thanks for this. I had no idea that direct drive wheels had such drawbacks. I imagine I must be thinkling of the Moon Buggy from the Apollo Project.
          How do Hybrid motors fare in the efficiency department? I.E. small internal combustion engines driving central electric generators. Is there that much of an energy gain with central electric generation and distribution via charging stations to battery packs over hybrid rigs? This will get into “the weeds” right quick.

          1. TheMog

            From an efficiency standpoint, hybrids still suffer from the low energy conversion issue of regular IC engines. That said, depending on the setup, one advantage can be that you can run the IC engine at its efficiency peak if all it is doing is driving a generator rather than driving the wheels directly. IIRC that’s what Chevrolet did in the Volt, and that did make a difference. Plus, hybrids allow you to at least partially recapture energy that would otherwise go to waste (for example via regenerative braking).

            The other issue with hybrids is that the two drivetrains add a lot of complexity, which is why I think they’ll be an ultimate evolutionary dead end. EVs are comparatively simple even when compared to a contemporary basic ICE car, but integrating both into a drivetrain is about as complex as regular cars get.

            1. Walt

              Quibble regarding hybrid “drivetrain complexity:” The transaxle in my ’06 Prius is simple and robust: just two motor-generators and a planetary gear set. No clutch, no bands, no hydraulics, no dedicated starter motor. Only the parking brake ever disengages. The inverter and control software are indeed complex, but nonetheless also robust. Unless on Interstates, it yields an honest 50 mpg (4.7 liters per 100km).

              1. TheMog

                Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that the drivelines are not robust. Especially Toyota has done a really good job on that front, but as you pointed out, the control software and additional control mechanisms needed to blend the drivetrains add complexity and thus cost (and potential maintenance/repair headaches down the line).

              2. Carolinian

                My Elantra uses Prius derived Atkinson cycle valve timing while on freeway and gets north of 40 mpg. Around town however it’s south of 30 mpg because greater weight than a subcompact (my previous car).

                It’s getting where the only further ICE improvements will be by making all of our vehicles smaller.

        2. T_Reg

          Re wheel direct drives, Aptera is moving forward with Elaphe’s product. It remains to be seen whether they will ever make it to production, but right now, their timeline looks better than the Cybertruck.

          I would be fine with a single motor outside the wheels, driving the rear wheel, but they’re determined to try something different. We’ll see.

    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      SC strategies which might not have been successful before ” your grandfather’s conservative Supreme Court” might be successful before the Christian FedSoc Sharia Court we have now. Those pro-pollution AGs figure it is worth a try. The Sharia Court’s decision will prove your analysis either real-time now-based or retro nostalgia-based.

      Between the ICE efficiency developments you cite and the in-wheel electro-motor concept cited by ambrit, major automotive fuel efficiency should be possible. And in those states and cities where a Better GreenCulture Majority can conquer city and state government and drive the Fossil Fuel DeathCulture out of politics and power and off the public square, that Better GreenCulture can restore some of their regions’ missing mass-transit systems. If they could figure out how to shrink their regions’ economies from the top down against their regions’ upper classes, they could reconfigure their regional survival economies so as to suppress energy use even further and cram it even more down.

  4. Old Sarum

    Will car-farts end up in the Supreme Court?

    I am reminded of California immigration controls as depicted in that song revealed to me in the Ry Cooder version of “Do Re Me”

    Flaco on accordion at the BBC


  5. jackiebass63

    I remember the cars of the 60’s. If they got 20mpg they were considered fuel efficient.At less than 100,000 miles most were ready of the junk yard.At first when Pollution standards were adapted it didn’t well. It took auto makers about 10 years to adjust.Once that happened the quality of cars improved. N0w a car can go 200,000 to 300,000 miles or more.I for one wouldn’t want to return to the past. I own a Toyota Venza hybrid. For an AWD drive full size vehicle the mpg is great. Depending on the trip it varies from 34mpg to 52mpg. This only happened because car makers were forced to build better more fuel efficient cars.

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      This only happened because car makers were forced to build better more fuel efficient cars.

      Agree, but planned obsolescence wasn’t fundamentally cured by California standards, as I recall, but rather by imports from Japan that would go for more than two years before starting the irreversible process of progressively breaking down till by the fourth year they were pretty much only good for the junk yard and spare parts. Congress critters stubbornly defended the auto industry playing innocent in this nation wide scam in spite of folks like Ralph Nader (who did make a difference at least in public perception). But it was the Japanese imports that lasted and lasted that finally made it simply too embarrassing for elected stooges to keep up the pretense that long lasting cars was a physical and economic impossibility. Political ideologies on the right (“buy American”) couldn’t get around the fact that imports were making American heaps a huge waste of money and frustration.

      Even then things changed but slowly until Billy the Skids opened up a can of cheap labor and environmental get away with murder nightmares via NAFTA.

      1. jackiebass63

        I agree that Japanese imports played a big part in changing our auto industry. It took a while for them tube accepted. At first they were efficient but called rust buckets, because the body quickly rusted away.Like US produced cars, they gradually improved by correcting their faults. Actually better quality foreign cars forced American cars to become better. This along with increased pollution and economy standards produced the cars we have today.

    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      It was imports from non-America that forced the issue of quality improvement in American carmakers.

      Several decades ago i was riding an elevator with an upper-middle-aged UMW worker. I said that it would be years before I bought a car, but if/when I had to buy one, I would rather buy UMW American than foreign.
      But I needed a car nearly as good as some of the Japanese cars then existing. It didn’t have to be “as” good. If it were 95% as good, I would buy UMW American. I would rather be able to buy a Hondaform car from GM than have to buy it from Honda. He appeared sympathetic to my concerns and said ” I understand what you’re saying”.

      Given where we are now, I would note that an Ohio Honda is more American than a Mexico Ford.

  6. orlbucfan

    I’m shocked, I tell ya, shocked that Floridumb isn’t on that list! We’ve got 3 IC automotive vehicles ranging in age from 12 to 22 y.o. They all have stick shifts and get very good gas mileage. Plus, they’ve been properly maintained. We want to eventually get an EV, but the recharge grids aren’t fully up and running yet.

  7. Bee Gentry

    Seems to me the problem is not with lack of uniformity but with the auto industry’s response to that. Maybe best sellers could have CA and non-CA models?

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