California Sues US to Regain Power Over Auto Emissions

Traffic on Golden Gate Bridge
Traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

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California is asking a federal court to prevent President Donald Trump from stripping the state of its power to set limits on auto emissions of greenhouse gases that are stricter than those of the national government.

In a lawsuit filed Sept. 20 in Washington, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Gov. Gavin Newsom, both Democrats, made good on their pledges to fight Trump’s decision, which the president said would cut environmental regulations and make cars cheaper. A coalition of 22 other states joined the suit, including several coastal ones that previously agreed to join in holding automakers to California’s standards.

California contends the Trump administration has exceeded the authority Congress granted to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and said the administration is ignoring repeated efforts by federal lawmakers to preserve California’s power to improve its air quality by regulating automobile tailpipe emissions.

“Two courts have already upheld California’s emissions standards, rejecting the argument the Trump administration resurrects to justify its misguided pre-emption rule,” Becerra said in a statement announcing the suit. “Yet, the administration insists on attacking the authority of California and other states to tackle air pollution and protect public health.”

Trump announced Sept. 18 via Twitter his intent to revoke California’s ability to set emission standards. A day later, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler revealed the policy at a press conference during which he also chided the state for its poor air quality.

In its new policy, the administration asserted that the U.S. Department of Transportation’s authority to set fuel-economy standards for cars and trucks pre-empts California’s ability to dictate tailpipe-emissions standards for greenhouse gases, even as the EPA has a nearly unbroken 50-year history of granting permission for the state to do just that.

While the state was first granted authority to better combat its endemic urban smog problems in 1967, California remains home to seven of the 10 American cities with the worst air quality.

“California has the worst air quality in the United States,” Wheeler said, noting that tens of millions of people there reside in areas that don’t meet ambient air standards. “We hope California will focus on these issues.”

However, the EPA rescinded a 2013 waiver that permitted the state to pursue its own greenhouse-gas-emissions standard and a zero-emission vehicle mandate, arguing the federal Clean Air Act prohibited both programs. The waiver withdrawal will take effect starting with the 2021 automotive model year.

The suing states contend the administration action is unjustifiably arbitrary and capricious, and misinterprets the federal Energy Policy and Conservation Act as pre-empting state emission standards. They also said it defies the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to assess the impact of the administration’s action upon the environment and public health.

On Sept. 19, California’s top air-pollution regulatory board approved the state’s plans to set its own standards with carmakers Ford Motor Co., Volkswagen AG, Honda Motor Co. and BMW AG.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, who was named as a defendant in the suit, said the administration’s action would ensure that there would be just one set of national fuel economy standards, “as Congress mandated and intended.”

“No state has the authority to opt out of the nation’s rules and no state has a right to impose its policies on everybody else in our whole country,” she said.

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More than a dozen states had previously elected to adopt California’s emissions regulations as their own: Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

The lawsuit is the 60th filed against the Trump administration by the state of California, according to its attorney general’s office.