The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!
Why California Gets to Write Its Own Auto Emissions Standards: 5 Questions Answered
By Nicholas Bryner and Meredith Hankins
Editor's note: On April 2, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt announced that the Trump administration plans to revise tailpipe emissions standards negotiated by the Obama administration for motor vehicles built between 2022 and 2025, saying the standards were set "too high." Pruitt also said the EPA was re-examining California's historic ability to adopt standards that are more ambitious than the federal government's. Legal scholars Nicholas Bryner and Meredith Hankins explain why California has this authority—and what may happen if the EPA tries to curb it.
Where does California get this special authority?
The Clean Air Act empowers the EPA to regulate air pollution from motor vehicles. To promote uniformity, the law generally bars states from regulating car emissions.
But when the Clean Air Act was passed, California was already developing innovative laws and standards to address its unique air pollution problems. So Congress carved out an exemption. As long as California's standards protect public health and welfare at least as strictly as federal law, and are necessary "to meet compelling and extraordinary conditions," the law requires the EPA to grant California a waiver so it can continue to apply its own regulations. California has received numerous waivers as it has worked to reduce vehicle emissions by enacting ever more stringent standards since the 1960s.
Other states can't set their own standards, but they can opt to follow California's motor vehicle emission regulations. Currently, 12 states and the District of Columbia have adopted California's standards.
Gov. Ronald Reagan signs legislation establishing the California Air Resources Board to address the state's air pollution, Aug. 30, 1967. CA ARB
What are the "compelling and extraordinary conditions" that California's regulations are designed to address?
In the 1950s scientists recognized that the unique combination of enclosed topography, a rapidly growing population and a warm climate in the Los Angeles air basin was a recipe for dangerous smog. Dutch chemist Arie Jan Haagen-Smit discovered in 1952 that worsening Los Angeles smog episodes were caused by photochemical reactions between California's sunshine and nitrogen oxides and unburned hydrocarbons in motor vehicle exhaust.
California's Motor Vehicle Pollution Control Board issued regulations mandating use of the nation's first vehicle emissions control technology in 1961, and developed the nation's first vehicle emissions standards in 1966. Two years later the EPA adopted standards identical to California's for model year 1968 cars. UCLA Law scholar Ann Carlson calls this pattern, in which California innovates and federal regulators piggyback on the state's demonstrated success, "iterative federalism." This process has continued for decades.
California has set ambitious goals for slowing climate change. Is that part of this dispute with the EPA?
Yes. Transportation is now the largest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the U.S. The tailpipe standards that the Obama EPA put in place were designed to limit GHG emissions from cars by improving average fuel efficiency.
These standards were developed jointly by the EPA, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and California, which have overlapping legal authority to regulate cars. EPA and California have the responsibility to control motor vehicle emissions of air pollutants, including GHGs. DOT is in charge of regulating fuel economy.
Congress began regulating fuel economy in response to the oil crisis in the 1970s. DOT sets the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard that each auto manufacturer must meet. Under this program, average fuel economy in the U.S. improved in the late 1970s but stagnated from the 1980s to the early 2000s as customers shifted to purchasing larger vehicles, including SUVs, minivans and trucks.
In 2007 Congress responded with a new law that required DOT to set a standard of at least 35 miles per gallon by 2020, and the "maximum feasible average fuel economy" after that. That same year, the Supreme Court ruled that the Clean Air Act authorized the EPA to regulate GHG emissions from cars.
The Obama administration's tailpipe standard brought these overlapping mandates together. EPA's regulation sets how much carbon dioxide can be emitted per mile, which matches with DOT's increased standard for average fuel economy. It also includes a "midterm review" to assess progress. Administrator Scott Pruitt's new EPA review, released on April 2, overturned the Obama administration's midterm review and concluded that the 2022 to 2025 standard was not feasible.
The EPA now argues that earlier assumptions behind the rule were "optimistic" and can't be met. However, its review almost entirely ignored the purpose of the standards and the costs of continuing to emit GHGs at high levels. Although the document is 38 pages long, the word "climate" never appears, and "carbon" appears only once.
The EPA's decision does not yet have any legal impact. It leaves the current standards in place until the EPA and DOT decide on a less-stringent replacement.
Can the Trump administration take away California's authority to set stricter targets?
The EPA has never attempted to revoke an existing waiver. In 2007, under George W. Bush, the agency denied California's request for a waiver to regulate motor vehicle GHG emissions. California sued, but the EPA reversed course under President Obama and granted the state a waiver before the case was resolved.
California's current waiver was approved in 2013 as a part of a "grand bargain" between California, federal agencies and automakers. It covers the state's Advanced Clean Cars program and includes standards to reduce conventional air pollutants like carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter, as well as the GHG standards jointly developed with the EPA and DOT.
The Trump administration is threatening to revoke this waiver when it decouples the national GHG vehicle standards from California's standards. EPA Administrator Pruitt has said that the agency is re-examining the waiver, and that "cooperative federalism doesn't mean that one state can dictate standards for the rest of the country." In our view, this statement mischaracterizes how the Clean Air Act works. Other states have voluntarily chosen to follow California's rules because they see benefits in reducing air pollution.
How would California respond if the EPA revokes its waiver?
Gov. Jerry Brown, Attorney General Xavier Becerra and California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols have all made clear that the state will push back. It's almost certain that any attempt to revoke or weaken California's waiver will immediately be challenged in court—and that this would be a major legal battle.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
- EPA: Pruitt touts states' rights. What about Calif.? -- Friday, March 23 ... ›
- Scott Pruitt Declares War on California; California Declares War Back ›
- Trump administration moves on two fronts to challenge California ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
‘Companies Should Not Be Allowed to Use Hazardous Ingredients in Products People Use’: Michelle Pfeiffer Speaks Up for Safer Cosmetics
The beauty products we put on our skin can have important consequences for our health. Just this March, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned that some Claire's cosmetics had tested positive for asbestos. But the FDA could only issue a warning, not a recall, because current law does not empower the agency to do so.
Michelle Pfeiffer wants to change that.
The actress and Environmental Working Group (EWG) board member was spotted on Capitol Hill Thursday lobbying lawmakers on behalf of a bill that would increase oversight of the cosmetics industry, The Washington Post reported.
By Julia Conley
Scientists at the United Nations' intergovernmental body focusing on biodiversity sounded alarms earlier this month with its report on the looming potential extinction of one million species — but few heard their calls, according to a German newspaper report.
The climate crisis is a major concern for American voters with nearly 40 percent reporting the issue will help determine how they cast their ballots in the upcoming 2020 presidential election, according to a report compiled by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
Of more than 1,000 registered voters surveyed on global warming, climate and energy policies, as well as personal and collective action, 38 percent said that a candidate's position on climate change is "very important" when it comes to determining who will win their vote. Overall, democratic candidates are under more pressure to provide green solutions as part of their campaign promises with 64 percent of Democrat voters saying they prioritize the issue compared with just 34 percent of Independents and 12 percent of Republicans.
President Donald Trump has agreed to sign a $19.1 billion disaster relief bill that will help Americans still recovering from the flooding, hurricanes and wildfires that have devastated parts of the country in the past two years. Senate Republicans said they struck a deal with the president to approve the measure, despite the fact that it did not include the funding he wanted for the U.S.-Mexican border, CNN reported.
"The U.S. Senate has just approved a 19 Billion Dollar Disaster Relief Bill, with my total approval. Great!" the president tweeted Thursday.
"There was a lot of devastation throughout the state," Governor Mike Parson said at a Thursday morning press conference, as NPR reported. "We were very fortunate last night that we didn't have more injuries than what we had, and we didn't have more fatalities across the state. But three is too many."