An attempt by the Trump administration to halt stricter vehicle-mileage standards will once again pit the federal government against California — but one element of the dispute is unprecedented.
In its scaling-back of the Obama-era rules, the administration is also seeking for the first time to repeal California’s unique authority to set different, tighter auto-emissions rules than the rest of the country.
The Clean Air Act lists California as the only state that can diverge from the national standards, through waivers that the federal government must grant in most circumstances. Other states can choose to follow California’s standards — and more than 30 percent of the car-buying market does.
UCLA environmental law professor Ann Carlson says California has received nearly 100 such waivers under the Clean Air Act to implement its own standards over the past 50 years.
"Once it’s already given permission to the state, can it take that permission back?" Carlson asked. "That’s an open legal question."
The Trump administration is seeking to scale back the Obama-era rules for vehicles in 2020. The proposal would still require U.S. cars and trucks to average about 31 miles per gallon under real road conditions. But it would no longer continue ramping up fuel-efficiency requirements to 36 miles per gallon in 2025.
Through its waiver, California is set to continue implementing the stricter mileage standards. Car manufacturers have fretted that a rollback, while California retains its waiver, would split the market, causing confusion and forcing companies to continue producing a separate set of cars for states following California’s rules.
So, the Trump administration must repeal the waiver to fully rollback the Obama-era rules. To do this, federal officials argue that lawmakers intended the Clean Air Act waivers for California to address smog, not climate change.
“Attempting to solve climate change, even in part, through the … waiver provision is fundamentally different from that section’s original purpose of addressing smog-related air quality problems,” the administration argued in the justification for its proposed rule.
The EPA faces another challenge in its lawsuit: In order to repeal the rule, the agency must refute the same data that it previously used to justify the tighter emissions standards.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra already filed a lawsuit with 16 other states and Washington, D.C., in April, when the EPA first announced it would seek to repeal.
“I think the facts that we have — that the EPA itself used a few years ago to set these national standards — are going to overwhelm any type of information that the Trump administration tries to proffer as real facts,” Becerra said.
In removing the waiver, the Trump administration would also undo California’s requirement that car companies sell zero-emission vehicles in-state.
Although this is the first federal attempt to repeal a waiver, it resumes a previous fight between California and a Republican administration.
“This issue is in a way a repeat of an episode that occurred during the George W. Bush administration,” said UC Davis environmental law professor Richard Frank.
California first attempted to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from cars in 2008, and the Bush administration denied its waiver. So, the state sued.
“That litigation was brought by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, represented by then-California Attorney General Jerry Brown,” Frank said.
The lawsuit was never ruled on — the state dropped it after President Obama took office and negotiated with automakers and California on the very same rules that the Trump administration is now attempting to repeal.