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California Presents Unique Roadblock For Trump Administration Attempt To Roll Back Fuel Regulations

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Traffic on Highway 50 continues in the afternoon rain on Sunday, Feb. 8, 2015

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

The Trump administration has announced it will roll back Obama-era fuel efficiency targets for cars and trucks, setting up a showdown with California.

The Obama administration and the auto industry agreed to the tighter standards in 2009, just after the bailout of American carmakers. It would have required cars and trucks average 36 miles per gallon by 2025.

The industry has since called that target too aggressive, saying consumers prefer less-efficient SUVs and trucks as gas prices have fallen.

But the Clean Air Act grants California unique authority to set its own, tighter air quality standards through an Environmental Protection Agency waiver, which it must grant unless it can show the state has erred in requesting it.

Stanford University environmental law professor Deborah Sivas says that creates a doubly high bar for the Trump administration to meet, if it is going to fully undo the Obama-era standards.

“It has to show that California’s decision to do the waiver was actually arbitrary and capricious,” Sivas said.

Moreover, Sivas said, the EPA would have to show that the data the agency previously accepted under the Obama administration should not have been accepted.

“It’s like a weird, double reversal,” Sivas said.

A dozen states, comprising about a third of the car-buying market, use the California standards.

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt suggested the agency could challenge the California waiver, specifically singling the state out in his statement announcing the rules’ planned rollback.

“Cooperative federalism doesn’t mean that one state can dictate standards for the rest of the country,” Pruitt said.

California Gov. Jerry Brown quickly shot back.

“Watch out for this belated April Fools' Day trick,” Brown said in a statement. “This cynical and meretricious abuse of power will poison our air and jeopardize the health of all Americans.”

State Attorney General Xavier Becerra has launched more than two dozen lawsuits against the Trump administration, many of them challenging the rollback of Obama-era environmental laws. Becerra suggested another lawsuit could follow the EPA’s announcement. 

“We’re ready to file suit if needed,” Becerra said in a statement.

California previously sued the George W. Bush administration over its right to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from vehicle tail pipes, after the federal government attempted to deny its waiver. The litigation was never resolved. Instead, the Obama administration granted the waiver as part of the same deal with automakers that led to the current fuel efficiency standards.

Ben Bradford

State Government Reporter

As the State Government Reporter, Ben covers California politics, policy and the interaction between the two. He previously reported on local and state politics, business, energy, and environment for WFAE in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Read Full Bio 

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