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Trump Administration Revokes California’s Emissions Waiver

Move sets up lengthy legal battle on states’ abilities to set own emissions standards
Photograph: Shutterstock

WASHINGTONThe Trump Administration is finalizing plans to revoke California’s waiver under the Clean Air Act that allows the state to set its own, tougher greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions standards.

In 2009, under President Obama, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) granted California a waiver of federal GHG emissions standards, enabling the state to set its own, tougher standards. In 2018, the EPA and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration under President Trump proposed to revoke that waiver, arguing that California does not face “compelling and extraordinary conditions” that support it. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia follow California’s tougher standards, making up more than one-third of the U.S. vehicle market combined.

At the same time as the Trump administration is challenging California’s waiver, it is finalizing its own 50-state fuel economy and emissions standard to replace the current Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard. The Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles rule would freeze the overall industry fuel-economy average for vehicle model years 2021-2026 at 37 miles per gallon vs. the 46.7 mpg standard under current rules finalized by the Obama administration in 2012.

EPA officials and representatives of the California Air Resources Board (CARB) met to try to hammer out a compromise, with the encouragement of automakers who want to avoid a lengthy legal battle and regulatory uncertainty. But the talks quickly collapsed. Sources told The New York Times that the federal emissions standard has been delayed as regulators have “struggled to prepare legal, technical or scientific justifications for it.”

California Makes a Deal

In July, California announced it had reached an agreement with four major automakers to continue to pursue voluntary annual reductions in vehicle GHG emissions through the 2026 model year. Sources told The New York Times that Trump was “blindsided and angered” by the announcement, and so he fast-tracked revoking California’s waiver as regulators continue to finalize the SAFE Vehicles rule. In September, The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. Department of Justice had also launched an antitrust investigation into the four automakers who signed the California agreement.

In a tweet on Sept. 18, President Trump said his administration was revoking California’s waiver “to produce far less expensive cars for the consumer, while at the same time making the cars substantially SAFER. This will lead to more production because of this pricing and safety advantage, and also due to the fact that older, highly polluting cars, will be replaced by new, extremely environmentally friendly cars.”

In his tweet, Trump said there would be “very little difference” in emissions between California’s standard and the SAFE Vehicles proposal, but that cars would be “safer and much less expensive. Many more cars will be produced under the new and uniform standard, meaning significantly more JOBS, JOBS, JOBS! Automakers should seize this opportunity because without this alternative to California, you will be out of business.”

According to the EPA's 2018 proposal for SAFE Vehicles, the new standard would increase oil demand by half a million barrels per day. Some studies have questioned the EPA’s assertions about SAFE’s cost and safety benefits

Legal Uncertainty

In a tweet, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said the state would fight the waiver revocation. “Today's actions represent another act in Donald Trump's political theater,” he said. “A failed attempt to assert power. A continuation of a political vendetta against CA and our progress. Bad news for himwe will prevail. See you in court.”

Richard Revesz, a professor of environmental law at New York University, told The New York Times that the Trump administration’s move was “unprecedented and a tremendously big deal,” pointing out that no presidential administration has ever revoked a state’s authority to regulate its own air quality before. Should the legal battle reach the U.S. Supreme Court and the Trump administration prevails, it could prevent states from regulating GHG emissions, legal experts told the Times. If California wins the argument, it would enable states to set up their own emissions standards, creating a “nightmare scenario” for automakers.

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