The Trump administration will seek to revoke California’s authority to regulate automobile greenhouse gas emissions — including its mandate for electric car sales — in a proposed revision of Obama-era standards, according to three people familiar with the plan.
The proposal, expected to be released this week, amounts to a frontal assault on one of former President Barack Obama’s signature regulatory programs to curb greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. It also sets up a high-stakes battle over California’s unique ability to combat air pollution and, if finalized, is sure to set off a protracted courtroom battle.
The proposed revamp would also put the brakes on federal rules to boost fuel efficiency into the next decade, according to sources, who asked to not be identified discussing the proposals before they are public.
Instead, it will cap federal fuel economy requirements at the 2020 level, which under federal law must be at least a 35-mile-per-gallon fleet average, rather than letting them rise to roughly 50 mpg by 2025 as envisioned in the plan left behind by Obama, according to the people.
As part of the effort, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will propose revoking the Clean Air Act waiver granted to California that has allowed the state to regulate carbon emissions from vehicle tailpipes and force carmakers to sell electric vehicles in the state in higher numbers, according to three people familiar with the plan.
The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will likewise assert that California is barred from regulating greenhouse gas emissions from autos under the 1975 law that established the first federal fuel-efficiency requirements, the people said.
The proposal is still in the final stages of a broad interagency review led by President Donald Trump’s Office of Management and Budget, but these major elements of the plan were not expected to change, the people said.
Messages seeking comment from OMB, NHTSA and the EPA were not immediately returned. California Air Resources Board head Mary Nichols declined to comment. Once the agencies formally unveil the proposal, the public will have a chance to weigh in, with those comments used to develop a final rule that could be implemented as soon as the end of the year.
Although the proposal will outline other options, the administration will put its weight behind the dramatic overhaul, including the revocation of California’s cherished authority, the people said.
The state’s 2009 waiver under the Clean Air Act has allowed California to set emissions rules for cars and trucks that are more stringent than the federal government’s. But the state has aligned its rules with those set by the EPA and NHTSA in a national program of clean-car rules. Negotiations toward another set of harmonized rules has not yet yielded agreement.
If Trump’s plan sticks, it could be his biggest regulatory rollback yet. Agencies are expected to claim it will reduce traffic fatalities by making it cheaper for drivers to replace older, less-safe cars, while paring sticker prices for new vehicles even if motorists have to spend more for gasoline.
California, for its part, rejects the idea that its 48-year ability to write its own tailpipe emission rules should end. “We have the law on our side, as well as the people of the country and the people of the world,” said Dan Sperling, a member of the state’s Air Resources Board.
The most-populous U.S. state and 16 others plus the District of Columbia filed a lawsuit on May 2 seeking to block the Trump administration’s effort to unravel the Obama-era emissions targets. Sperling said that number will grow as more and more people come to realize how fundamentally Trump is attacking the idea of states’ rights.
Caught somewhere in the middle are automakers, which in recent months have stressed they would not support freezing the federal targets and want Washington and Sacramento to continue linking their vehicle efficiency goals. While they spent the first year of the Trump administration attacking Obama’s rules as too costly, they fear the regulatory uncertainty that a years-long court battle over a rollback would create. In addition, other major auto markets such as China and Europe are pressing forward with tougher mandates of their own for cleaner cars.
“This is nothing less than an outrageous attack on public health and states’ rights,” said Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch. “It’s a dumb move for an administration that claims it wants peace, because this will lead to an emissions war: progressive states versus a reactionary federal government. The big question: who will the car companies back?”
Some conservatives have long chafed at the rare authority granted California and welcome the effort to revoke.
“Congress didn’t intend for California to set national fuel economy standards,” said Steve Milloy, a policy adviser for the Heartland Institute, a group critical of climate science. “It’s nutty it’s been allowed to develop. National fuel economy standards are set by the federal government so that’s what we are going to do.”
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