By Nick Cahill
SACRAMENTO – California’s unique ability to set strict car emissions rules is on the chopping block after the Trump administration said Thursday it was ending talks with state officials over a new federal standard.
California’s emissions laws, which have been adopted by a dozen other states, have for decades forced automakers to produce cleaner, more efficient cars to help clear California’s infamously smoggy skies. The clean air laws are also a critical component of the state’s ambitious climate change goals, as tailpipe emissions are the major contributor of greenhouse gas emissions in the state.
In a move that stunned state officials and environmentalists this past summer, the Trump administration said it would roll back Obama-era fuel economy standards and kick California’s standard to the curb.
California’s leaders viewed the decision as a blatant attack on states’ rights and collateral damage in Trump’s deregulation expedition.
The decision signaled a major victory for auto manufacturers who would in theory only have to comply with a 50-state standard in lieu of California’s stringent regulations. Oil and gas companies also stand to benefit from relaxed standards on fuel mileage.
The sides both said publicly they were open to finding a solution. But after six months, the federal government is no longer willing to talk.
“Despite the administration’s best efforts to reach a common-sense solution, it is time to acknowledge that California Air Resources Board has failed to put forward a productive alternative since the SAFE Vehicles Rule was proposed. Accordingly, the administration is moving forward to finalize a rule later this year with the goal of promoting safer, cleaner and more affordable vehicles,” the White House said in a statement.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom sees the move as another attempt to “punish” the Golden State, which has sued the Trump administration over 45 times in federal court – including earlier this week.
“President Trump is now targeting clean, breathable air for kids across America in his quest to punish California,” Newsom said in a statement. “If the Trump administration follows through, the only winners will be fossil fuel companies, and those profits will come at the expense of our children’s health.”
And California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said the decision indicates “impotence and fallibility” on the part of the Trump administration.
“Walking away from negotiations is sadly consistent with the Trump administration’s retreat from our nation’s existing clean car standards,” Becerra said in a statement. “Abandoning ship on the U.S.’s serious push to tackle pollution is another sign of impotence and fallibility, something Americans aren’t accustomed to. California and states throughout America are prepared to defend our national clean car standards even if the Trump administration intends to go AWOL.”
Even with the tough emissions standards, the Golden State still has the nation’s worst overall air quality: Over 10 million people live in areas classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as having severely polluted air. Lawmakers and regulators say the state must push ahead with tougher efficiency standards and have been trying to find new ways to get more Californians out of gas-guzzlers.
Former Gov. Jerry Brown signed an executive order in 2018 that dedicated $2.5 billion toward zero-emission subsidies and related infrastructure and also called for at least 1.5 million zero-emission cars on California roads by 2025.
Trump’s alternative would freeze President Barack Obama’s standard requiring new cars and pickup trucks to average at least 54.5 miles per gallon by model year 2025, instead leaving in place 2020 levels which require about 37 miles per gallon. In addition, the EPA could try to revoke California’s federal waiver, something it has never done and a move California has promised to challenge.
Earthjustice, which has defended California’s waiver in comments to the EPA, says the Trump administration is “refusing to protect us from climate pollution.”
“With recent scientific reports warning of a worsening climate crisis, it is simply unhinged from reality for the Trump administration to stubbornly block limits on our nation’s biggest source of climate pollution,” Earthjustice attorney Howard Fox said in a statement.
Since the 2018 announcement, California has approved a backup plan for if and when it loses the Clean Air Act waiver, which allows it to go above federal standard. State officials believe their plan to essentially replace the Obama-Era rules if they are scrapped will hold up in court.
“My message to the federal government: Do your job. Withdraw this proposal. Fulfill your duty under federal law to protect all Californians and Americans from harmful greenhouse gas emissions and to conserve energy,” Becerra said this past September. “Do no harm. Stop trying to interfere with the rights granted to California and other states by the Constitution and the Congress.”