California Strikes Back at Trump Efforts to Revoke Emissions Waiver

State sues EPA and snubs automakers who defended Trump’s position on one federal policy
Photograph: Shutterstock

WASHINGTON — In its latest offensive move, California is taking legal action against the Trump administration’s efforts to control emissions standards and making moves to punish automakers supportive of one federal standard.

At issue is California’s ability to set its own standards to fight smog. Because of a waiver of the Clean Air Act’s federal standards, granted during the Obama administration, California has set its own, tougher standards, which are also followed by 13 states and the District of Columbia.

In 2018, the Trump administration began laying the groundwork for denying California the waiver. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) under President Trump argue that California does not face “compelling and extraordinary conditions” that support the waiver. Instead, the Trump administration proposed its own, less stringent fuel economy program to replace the federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards set in place by President Obama, and which would also apply to California. (The administration is reportedly rethinking its approach, now considering an annual 1.5% increase in fleet fuel efficiency, The Wall Street Journal reported.)

After talks between California and the Trump administration to reach a compromise stalled, the state forged a voluntary framework in July 2019 with four automakers—Ford, Honda, BMW of North America and Volkswagen Group of America—in which they agree to pursue annual reductions in GHG emissions. 

In September, the Trump administration officially revoked California’s waiver, arguing that only the federal government can set fuel economy standards. Shortly after this action, California, 22 other states, the District of Columbia, Los Angeles and New York joined in a lawsuit against the NHTSA, arguing it had exceeded its authority through this action.

The court battle soon split the auto industry. In an October filing, 11 automakers—including General Motors, Toyota, Hyundai Motors, Mazda, Nissan, Kia and Subaru—asked the court to intervene in the litigation, and it supported the Trump administration’s push for a single, federal fuel economy standard.  

Automakers Take a Hit

The latest salvo from California came in November, when it led the coalition of states and cities to sue the EPA for its decision to revoke the waiver, the Los Angeles Times reported.

“We will be asking the court to declare that our right to demand cleaner cars and trucks is protected under the federal Clean Air Act and cannot be taken away by the Trump Administration simply because they don’t believe in the science of climate change—or because they want to punish us for taking action,” said Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board (CARB), the state agency that oversees air quality.

And now the state is hitting back at the automakers who supported the Trump administration’s argument for one federal standard. The California Department of General Services (DGS) recently announced new purchasing policies for state-owned vehicles. One would prohibit state agencies from purchasing cars powered only by an internal combustion engine, which would still allow the purchase of hybrids. More notably, the DGS is finalizing a second policy that would require state agencies to “only purchase vehicles from original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) that recognize [CARB’s] authority to set greenhouse gas and zero-emission vehicle standards, and which have committed to continuing stringent emissions reduction goals for their fleets.”

This second policy, which would take effect Jan. 1, 2020, would effectively ban state purchases of vehicles manufactured by automakers such as General Motors, Toyota, Fiat Chrysler and others represented by the lobbying group Global Automakers, a spokesperson for Gov. Gavin Newsom confirmed for The New York Times. Instead, the agencies would buy vehicles mainly from Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW, which signed the voluntary emissions reduction pledge with California.

“Carmakers that have chosen to be on the wrong side of history will be on the losing end of California’s buying power,” Newsom said.

Jeannine Ginivan, a spokesperson for GM, told the Times that California was self-limiting its selection of affordable EVs that could help it meet its emissions goals.

“Removing vehicles like the Chevy Bolt and prohibiting GM and other manufacturers from consideration will reduce California’s choices for affordable, American-made electric vehicles and limit its ability to reach its goal of minimizing the state government’s carbon footprint, a goal that GM shares,” Ginivan said.

GM and Fiat Chrysler would have the most business to lose. According to Reuters, California purchased $58.6 million worth of vehicles from GM and $55.8 million from Fiat Chrysler from 2016 to 2018. Toyota sold $10.6 million and Nissan $9 million worth of vehicles to California. Meanwhile, the state purchased $69.2 million worth of vehicles from Ford, $565,000 from Honda and no vehicles from Volkswagen or BMW over the same three-year period.



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