White House Is Preparing To Give Back California's Smog-Busting Powers

Apr 26, 2021
Originally published on April 28, 2021 12:38 pm

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said on Monday it is preparing to restore California's right to set its own vehicle emissions standards, in a widely anticipated reversal of Trump-era policies.

The decision, which will take several months to be finalized, reaffirms the Golden State's powerful position as an environmental regulator after the Trump administration in 2019 had sought to remove California's powers to set its own emissions standards.

It also sets the stage for negotiations over how strict federal vehicle standards will be under President Biden.

"I am a firm believer in California's long-standing statutory authority to lead," EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement.

"The 2019 decision to revoke the state's waiver to enforce its greenhouse gas pollution standards for cars and trucks was legally dubious and an attack on the public's health and wellbeing," he added.

The EPA will be accepting public comment until July 6 as part of the process of reversing the Trump-era rule.

The populous, car-loving state has been waging a battle against smog for decades.

And in recognition of that history, the EPA has long granted a waiver giving the state the authority to set its own standards for vehicle emissions, as long as they're more stringent than the national regulations.

That's an unusual exemption — other states can't set their own policies, although they can choose to adopt California's standards as their own.

Between California and the states that follow suit, about a third of the U.S. new car market is covered by the Golden State's policies, giving California regulators a remarkable amount of sway over the auto industry.

However, when the Trump administration weakened federal clean car standards, it also sought to revoke the waiver allowing California to set a higher bar.

That triggered a legal battle and divided the auto industry, with some carmakers choosing to side with California and voluntarily accept somewhat stricter vehicle emissions standards while the rest backed the Trump administration.

After Biden won the White House, every major automaker eventually dropped their support for the now-doomed Trump position.

The EPA has now started the process of reversing Trump's decision. The Department of Transportation last week also proposed to "wipe clean the regulatory slate," indicating that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would no longer seek to block state emissions standards, as it had under Trump.

It's still not clear what federal regulations on vehicle emissions and fuel economy will be under the Biden administration. Some environmental groups and progressive lawmakers are pushing for the reinstatement of the Obama-era standards, with more ambitious targets to follow.

The auto industry, meanwhile, is calling for standards midway between the Obama-era and Trump-era policies.

The EPA says it will propose new fuel economy rules in July.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


For decades, California has been setting its own greenhouse gas standards for vehicles, and California has been a leader. Fourteen states and the District of Columbia followed California standards, which are higher than federal standards in many ways. The Trump administration took away the state's authority to determine its own rules, but now the Biden administration plans to give that power back. NPR's Camila Domonoske is with us now. Good morning.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I guess we should begin by detailing how California has been different.

DOMONOSKE: Yeah, I mean, they've been incredibly influential. They're the only state that has this power from the EPA to set their own rules, and that's because back when the EPA started, California was already fighting an epic battle against smog and setting policy on these issues. And they've kept this ability as California has ramped up efforts against climate change, mandating electric vehicles. You mentioned all these other states that adopt California's policies, even though they can't set their own. Together, that's more than a third of the U.S. auto market, so California has the ability to put pressure on the U.S. auto industry almost single-handedly.

INSKEEP: And then the Trump administration came in a bit more than four years ago and did not like California having this power.

DOMONOSKE: That's right. President Trump both reduced the federal requirements for clean cars and tried to take away California's ability to set a higher bar. And it's interesting. The auto industry had been complaining that the requirements were too high, but what Trump gave them was more than they bargained for, and it actually split the industry. You had some carmakers stick with California and adopt higher standards with them while the rest of the auto industry backed Trump in a lawsuit that said California didn't have the right to set its own standards, and there were just lawsuits flying everywhere.

INSKEEP: OK, so - big mess, and now the Biden administration says, wait, we're going to flip the switch back. How does that resolve the situation?

DOMONOSKE: Well, it makes it clear that California does have this right that it has long had to set its own policies. Now, I spoke to Sandra Purohit, the director of federal advocacy at E2. That's a business group that supports environmental policies. And she noted, it is still not clear what the federal policy will be under Biden when it comes to vehicle emissions and fuel economy.

SANDRA PUROHIT: But allowing the states to move forward with this kind of authority means that, regardless of what the federal standard is, states can still innovate. States can still push the envelope. And that's a really important part of the history and hopefully the future as well.

DOMONOSKE: So, again, big question what the federal rules will be, but this gives California back its negotiating lever in moving forward.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about the automakers here before we go, because you mentioned the automakers weren't totally thrilled before Trump, then they weren't totally thrilled during Trump. How do they feel now?

DOMONOSKE: Well, they're no longer split. Support for the doomed Trump position has evaporated, so automakers agree that California should have its waiver back, but they would much rather have a single unified standard. Under Obama, there were actually intense negotiations to get California and the feds on the same page, which automakers really appreciated. They, again, would like to see these policies not be as strict as they were under Obama, but they'll almost certainly be stricter than they were under Trump.

INSKEEP: NPR's Camila Domonoske, thanks so much.

DOMONOSKE: Thanks, Steve.

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