Trump to Revoke California’s Fuel Economy Independence

For decades, California has led the country in setting tough automotive emissions standards. Now, the New York Times reports that the Trump administration is poised to revoke the state’s right to set its own fuel economy standards.

Overturning California’s fuel economy waver is supposedly justified by the administration because it feels no entity should impose stronger pollution controls that the federal government. The Environmental Protection Agency will make the announcement while Trump campaigns in California, fundraising for his 2020 run. In other words, so much for states’ rights.

Thirteen other states, as well as the District of Columbia, follow California’s pollution standards, so California is not the Lone Ranger in this arena. California Governor Gavin Newsom says Trump’s plan is part of a “political vendetta” against California, while California Atty. Gen. Xavier Bacerra said Trump “had no basis and no authority” for his action.

Newsom said, “It’s a move that could have devastating consequences for our kids’ health and the air we breathe if California were to roll over. But we will not-we will fight this latest attempt and defend our clean car standards.”

It is expected that Trump’s plan to rescind the waiver will initiate years of costly legal fights that will lead to a U.S. Supreme Court determination.

Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Sacramento), who is a member of the House committee that oversees the EPA, said she plans on writing legislation to keep California’s fuel economy standards. There is a possibility that Democrats could attach a provision to a budget measure or a must-pass measure to squeak it through.

California’s Fuel Economy Exemption

California’s fuel economy independence started in the 1960s when state officials called the concentration of smog in Los Angeles a public health crisis. Once the federal government enacted the 1970 Clean Air Act, California already had its own regulations for car builders, and those manufacturers were already complying with California’s fuel economy standards.

When Trump announced plans to stop California from setting its own rules the state negotiated a deal with Ford, Honda, Volkswagen, and BMW that, regardless of Trump’s attempts, these companies would follow California’s more stringent automotive pollution rules.

Congress, at the time, decided that California should set its own rules as long as they were at least as strong as the government’s. After that, it was up to each state to determine whether it would follow the Federal or California rules.

Trump announced his anger in a series of tweets as a way to head off other companies such as GM that expressed interest in following California’s rules. Understand, though, those car companies work years in advance, so the standards set by California for the next few years have likely already been incorporated into development and tooling. 

Electrification Nation

One way auto manufacturers attempted to meet the California standards was by selling hybrid and all-electric vehicles. Now, EVs are now being looked at as the wave of the future, and it’s unlikely that other developed nations will also reverse course. While the Trump administration tries to lower or eliminate environmental regulations, mining on Federal lands, and Endangered Species Act requirements, Europe has been going in the opposite direction with bans on all ICE vehicles being a 25-35-year goal for many countries in the EU.

It appears that from most accounts the move by Trump is seen as purely political. “It’s clearly a big slap at California,” Ann Carlson, a professor of environmental law at UCLA told the LA Times. “It does make you wonder whether there’s a motivation here that’s political rather than legal.”

“Trump has married his administration-wide hostility to the environment to his personal vendetta against California,” said Dan Becker, director of the Washington-based Safe Climate Campaign. 

Trump’s History

Trump’s administration has been sued many times by California over attempts to dismantle Obama-era environmental and public health regulations. Generally, federal judges have found in favor of California. The Trump administration has also been threatening the state with legal consequences for establishing the agreement with the four automakers. The administration has recently launched an antitrust investigation into whether or not California violated federal competition law by going behind the administration’s back with other automakers.

While the administration agrees that its weakening of pollution standards will increase greenhouse gas emissions, it argues that California’s fuel economy standards endanger drivers by making safer cars too expensive.

The scientific community has, of course, scoffed at the administration’s data to support rolling back standards. Many officials working on initiating the rollback have also left the Trump administration, while other manufacturers have openly rejected Trump’s plans.

It remains to be seen whether revoking California’s right to limit emissions and the administration’s plans to roll back the federal limits will be able to be completed before the elections in 2020, which Trump’s administration said it was shooting for. So maybe California’s fuel economy independence isn’t gone for good.