California Challenges Trump EPA Over Auto-Emissions Rollback

(Bloomberg) -- California isn’t rolling over as the Trump administration moves to toss Obama-era vehicle emission standards.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said he’s filing a lawsuit Tuesday challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s April 2 determination that the requirements for cars and light trucks are too stringent and must be revised. The EPA is now in the process of rewriting those standards that aimed to slash carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles.

"The state of California is not looking to pick a fight with the Trump administration, but we are ready for one, especially when the stakes are so high for our families, our health and the planet," Becerra said at a news conference announcing the move.

The conflict has been brewing since the Obama administration concluded an EPA review of the standards’ feasibility -- finding they were sustainable and should be maintained -- a week before President Donald Trump took office and more than a year ahead of an April 2018 deadline. Automakers cried foul and asked Trump to revive the review; he acquiesced in March last year.

‘Politically Charged’

California is set to argue the EPA arbitrarily reversed course on April 2 when it sided with automakers and said the standards should be scrapped, paving the way for the current rewrite. At the time, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt dubbed the Obama administration’s decision “politically charged,” saying it ignored the reality of imposing the new rules on carmakers.

The EPA’s conclusion triggered the formal process of dialing back the Obama-era rules, which aimed to slash carbon dioxide emissions from cars and light trucks by boosting fuel economy to a fleet average of more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025.

The challenge marks California’s 10th lawsuit against the EPA and its 32nd since Trump took office.

Becerra cast the EPA action as one among a litany of Trump administration efforts to unravel environmental safeguards in favor of industry. He was flanked by California Governor Jerry Brown and California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols while announcing the lawsuit Tuesday to condemn the Trump administration for endangering the health of millions of Americans to bolster gasoline sales.

‘Real Stuff’

"Pruitt and I suppose his boss Mr. Trump, they want people to buy more gas, to create more pollution," said Brown, who’s in his final year as leader of the world’s sixth-largest economy. “The fires, the rising sea levels, the mudslides” and other “turmoil that’s going to come about -- this is real stuff. If Pruitt and Trump don’t get it, they need to go.”

Sixteen states and the District of Columbia are joining California on the lawsuit. Together, they represent about 43 percent of new car sales nationally.

The lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington intensifies the tension between the federal government and the most populous U.S. state over issues including immigration, law enforcement, health care and the environment. Significantly, California has set a higher bar for vehicle emissions than the EPA since 1967 under the Clean Air Act. Pruitt’s actions threaten California’s leadership role on climate change.

“Cooperative federalism doesn’t mean that one state can dictate standards for the rest of the country," Pruitt said April 2. “It is in America’s best interest to have a national standard, and we look forward to partnering with all states, including California, as we work to finalize that standard."

EPA representatives said the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

Critics of the EPA action say weakening the emission standards will put U.S. automakers at a disadvantage to overseas competitors.

"You’re going to back off from investing in the most advanced technologies just at the time the European and Chinese companies have their pedal to the floor,” said Dan Sperling, a University of California at Davis transportation professor. "The U.S. is on the verge of ceding its leadership in the global auto industry,” said Sperling, who also is a member of the California Air Resources Board.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.