Los Angeles smog
Photo by David Iliff. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

Mary Nichols, long-time clean air champion and chair of the powerful California Air Resources Board since 2007, is known for not pulling her punches. And she was having none of it at a recent CARB meeting where her agency unanimously reaffirmed its commitment to the state’s rigorous fuel economy standards … with auto industry reps populating the audience.

“What were you thinking?” she asked them. “What were you thinking when you threw yourselves upon the mercy of the Trump administration to try to solve your problems?”

Nichols didn’t hold back. The auto industry, saved from financial catastrophe by the Obama Administration back in 2009, had agreed as part of their bailout to make cars and light trucks with better gas mileage – achieving an average of 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. Two years later, in 2011, the auto industry agreed to a 54.5 mpg standard by 2025.

But with a seismic shift in national politics last fall, the trade group Auto Alliance appealed to Donald Trump’s transition team on November 10, just two days after his unexpected election victory. It appealed to the Trump administration again, on February 21, this time to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt urging that the 2025 target be reconsidered.

President Trump obliged on March 15 at a press conference with automakers in Michigan, announcing that the federal government will reevaluate EPA standards for greenhouse gas emissions from autos sold between 2022 and 2025.

Trump has long suggested that he wants to roll back Obama-era fuel economy rules, but exactly how much remains unclear. On January 13, just a week before the Trump inauguration, Obama’s EPA had finalized the 2022-25 standards – more than a year earlier than required and, clearly, just in time for Trump to inherit the new regulations.

Speaking at that March 15 event, President Trump characterized EPA’s January 13 announcement as an “11th-hour executive action.” “We are going to restore the (EPA’s) originally scheduled midterm review, and we are going to ensure that any regulations we have protect and defend your jobs,” Trump told workers at a test facility for driverless car technology.

California moved early on emissions standards

So, you might wonder, what does California’s fuel economy standards have to do with the rest of the nation? It’s a little complicated, but stay with me for a bit.

Let’s begin in the mid-1960s. That’s when the federal government began granting California special authority to pursue vehicle emission standards that are more aggressive than the rest of the nation. With enactment in 1970 of the Clean Air Act, the state must seek a waiver from the Environmental Protection Agency to adopt those tougher mileage standards, and the state has obtained those waivers repeatedly over the past half century. Only once has California been denied a waiver, during the Bush Administration in 2008 when the state adopted a new set of regulations and the Bush Administration had decided not to adopt national vehicle emission standards.

Why the Golden State received special treatment back in the 1960s had a lot to do with its terrible air quality. Many parts of the state had notoriously dirty air 50 years ago. Industrial pollution, California’s love affair with the car, and geographic features that concentrated pollutants in the atmosphere, particularly in the Los Angeles Basin, all conspired to create some of the filthiest skies in the country. And about that romance with cars: by 1940 Los Angeles County alone had more than a million cars on the road.

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California’s urban areas still struggle with air pollution, but it’s nothing like it used to be. I remember vividly what it was like as a kid in the 1970s flying with my family to Los Angeles, descending into a sickly brown soup of smog. I also remember being cooped-up inside with hundreds of other kids at my elementary school in the San Francisco Bay area because another smog alert had forced cancellations of oudoor recess or lunch. For anyone who lived in California during those years, the consequences of unregulated air pollution are no abstraction.

And by then, California already had been working on the problem for years; Los Angeles was tackling air pollution from factories back in the 1940s and 50s. Beginning in 1960, the state became the first in the nation to begin regulating tailpipe emissions from automobiles, UCLA environmental law professor Ann Carlson told Robinson Meyer of The Atlantic for a March 6 story. That’s why, as congressional and Executive Branch officials were drafting what became the 1970 Clean Air Act, California lobbied hard to maintain a degree of autonomy from the federal government – to continue down its own path toward cleaner air. That freedom is manifested in the waivers it’s gotten from EPA. Only California can get the waiver, and it applies only  to emissions from automobiles.

Under the 1977 Clean Air Act Amendments, the federal government began allowing other states to adopt California’s fuel economy standards – a move that would have big implications for the auto industry.

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Today, 15 states “opt for tougher rules, including Georgia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and the entire New York metropolitan area,” Meyer wrote in his March 6 Atlantic piece. “This means that California’s rules actually cover 135 million people, more than 40 percent of the U.S. population. And since any car dealership in a state bordering a waiver state can sell California-compliant cars, the vast majority of Americans live at least partly under the Golden State rules.”

When the Obama Administration in May 2009 announced fuel economy standards aligned with those in California, the effect was that California’s standards became the nation’s standards.

Auto industry objections

In its February 21 letter to Pruitt, the Auto Alliance essentially argued that the EPA standard for 2022-25 was set too far in advance and that the Obama adminisration’s EPA evaluation ending in the January 13 final determination had been rushed. “No agency ever had set emissions standards so far into the future, and all stakeholders understood that no one could accurately project the circumstances affecting the technological and economic feasibility of these standards,” wrote Auto Alliance President and CEO Mitch Bainwol.

Bainwol added that no “conventional” vehicle currently meets the 54.5 mpg average required for 2025, and that conventional vehicles make up 96.5 percent of the new light-duty vehicle fleet. “Even under EPA’s optimistic estimates, the automotive industry will have to spend a staggering $200 billion between 2012 and 2025 to comply” with the 2025 standard, he wrote.

The Obama EPA, Bainwol further argued, had underestimated the economic burden the 2025 standard would impose, and as a result, “manufacturers will have to rely on much more expensive electrified technologies (i.e. hybrids and plug-ins), driving up vehicle prices and depressing auto sales.”

As with so much involving the Air Act and automakers, that’s not where the story ends. In a March 7 letter, a group of Democratic senators appealed to Pruitt to not back away from the 2025 standards. The EPA’s technical conclusions related to the 2025 standard were “consistent with the conclusion of the 2015 study by the National Academies of Science that the 2025 standards could be achieved primarily with advanced gasoline technologies,” they wrote.

On March 13, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers sued the EPA in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to throw out the January 13 final determination. Trump’s March 15 announcement in Detroit came two days later.

None of these latest moves by the Trump Administration have come as a surprise. The California Legislature certainly saw them coming, and back in early January it hired former Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder, who served under President Obama, to represent the state in future legal conflicts with the Trump Administration.

At the Air Resources Board meeting in Riverside on March 24, Nichols echoed that resolve and appeared ready for a fight. “We’re going to press on,” she said.

What’s next

It will take months for the EPA under Trump to re-review the 2022-25 standard. The agency will have to reevaluate data, consider new input from states, the auto industry, environmental groups, and others. By mid-next year, EPA is expected to decide whether to keep or scrap the 2022-25 standard. That decision too may not surprise many in Calfiornia and elsewhere.

The big question for California is whether the Trump Administration – whatever its decision is for the rest of the country – will continue issuing waivers to the state so it can chart its own course. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, for one, has not inspired optimism among those in the California camp. At his confirmation hearing in January, California Democratic Senator Kamala Harris pressed Pruitt on whether he would continue to grant a waiver to California. “What is your intention, sir?” she said. “I don’t know that,” Pruitt answered, “without going through the process to determine that, Senator, and would not want to presume the outcome.”

One irony here is that Pruitt, as attorney general for his home state of Oklahoma, had repeatedly sued EPA, arguing against federal overreach on environmental matters. It now looks like the champion of state’s rights could be gearing up for a legal fight against California’s ability to self-regulate.

“Republicans generally say they support states’ rights and don’t like federal regulatory mandates,” UCLA law professor Sean Hecht wrote in the blog Legal Planet, on March 6. “But they seem to pick and choose where to apply these principles. Apparently, allowing states the freedom to choose better public health and less contribution to climate change isn’t a place they tolerate states’ rights.”

Pruitt’s eventual decision on the California waiver issue will be among the most consequential he’ll make for clean air and climate change. But if he denies the Golden State its ability to build its own road to a low carbon future, it’s unlikely that will be the last word. California will surely take EPA to court, and it’s hard to see Nichols or California Governor Jerry Brown backing away from this fight.

Bruce Lieberman

Bruce Lieberman, a long-time journalist, has covered climate change science, policy, and politics for nearly two decades. A newspaper reporter for 20 years, Bruce worked for The San Diego Union-Tribune...