Why Trump Attacks California’s Anti-Pollution Powers

(Bloomberg) -- When U.S. President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air Act in 1970, he recognized a simple truth about his home state of California: When tens of millions of people drive around constantly in a desert, they generate lots of pollution. The law gave California special authority to write tailpipe emission limits that can be tougher than the federal government’s when the state deems it necessary. Now President Donald Trump is insisting that California fall in line like other states. He says he’s doing it to help out automakers. They’re not entirely sure they want this kind of help.

1. What’s Trump doing?

He’s upending fuel-economy rules negotiated with the auto industry by his predecessor, Barack Obama. Those rules call for raising the federal government’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy requirement for cars and trucks to at least a 35-mile-per-gallon average by 2020, and to roughly 47 mpg by 2025. Under Trump, the Environmental Protection Agency and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are jointly proposing to cap those requirements at a fleet average of 37 miles per gallon starting in 2020. Trump also wants to freeze rules that were adopted jointly by Washington and California requiring the auto industry to cut allowable carbon dioxide emissions by 2025 to a level similar to targets the European Union, Japan and China have already set for themselves.

2. Why does Trump want a rollback?

Trump has been pushing a broad range of measures he says will help businesses by getting rid of excessive regulation, and the Obama fuel standards have been a favorite target. Officials say the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is prepared to back Trump up by asserting that the rollback will reduce traffic fatalities by making it cheaper for drivers to replace older, less-safe cars.

3. Why is he going after California?

Because if California is allowed to keep its own, tougher standards, that would undermine much of the impact of Trump’s move. Traditionally, a dozen states have followed California’s lead on air pollution, and Colorado recently signed on, too. Combined, these states account for more than a third of all U.S. auto sales.

4. What about the Clean Air Act?

Trump officials say California and other states are barred from regulating greenhouse gas emissions under a different law, one passed in 1975 law that established the first federal fuel-efficiency requirements. In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency intends to revoke the waiver to the Clean Air Act that allows the state to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from vehicle tailpipes and to enforce its electric vehicle sales mandate.

5. What does California say?

It had already sued in May, along with 16 other states plus the District of Columbia, to challenge an EPA determination that the fuel-efficiency rules are overly stringent and must be revised. In a subsequent Bloomberg interview, Governor Jerry Brown said he expects a court fight that will last longer than Trump’s tenure in office. In the meantime, California officials have offered to relax the standards if the agreement extends out until 2030.

6. How strong is California’s case?

Ann Carlson, a University of California at Los Angeles law professor, said the state’s best defense of its independent regulatory powers could lie in its requirement for battery-powered cars or gas-electric plug-ins. Such zero-emission vehicles need to make up as many as 40 percent of sales by 2030 if California is to meet its CO2 reduction targets, according to estimates by the state’s Air Resources Board staff. ZEVs are also crucial for California’s plan to meet increasingly stringent federal ozone limits -- limits that so far not even Donald Trump has challenged. The state’s independence in fighting pollutants like ground-level ozone, a precursor to smog, is recognized explicitly in the Clean Air Act, Carlson said.

7. What does the auto industry think?

It had agreed to the Obama proposal, which started to take effect in 2011. But a key concession by Obama and California was to backload many of the increases, especially for big SUVs, pickups and electric cars. That means the manufacturers had to make only gradual improvements for the first decade but face steeply increasing requirements from 2021 to 2025. After Trump’s victory, they began to attack Obama’s plan as too costly and to ask for relief.

8. Does that mean they’re backing Trump?

Not entirely. They don’t support Trump’s proposal to freeze the federal standards, as opposed to making them less stringent. That’s because they don’t want the U.S. to fall behind carmakers in other countries who are being pushed to develop new technologies. And they don’t want to be branded as heedless of climate change. But what they really worry about is the uncertainty that would be created by both a years-long court battle over the rollback, and by a patchwork of standards if Washington and California stop linking their rules.

The Reference Shelf

  • All about the Clean Air Act.
  • A Bloomberg News article on Trump’s planned repeal of California’s powers.
  • The EPA’s determination on rolling back federal tailpipe standards.
  • Trump’s legal strategy failed twice under President George W. Bush.
  • An EPA report on fuel economy and emissions trends, 1975-2017.

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