WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump and California went to war on Wednesday over who should set U.S. standards for vehicle emissions and electric cars, foreshadowing a legal battle over environmental policy issues that will affect the auto industry and consumers.
In a morning flurry of tweets, Trump confirmed he will revoke California’s long-standing authority, granted by the EPA since the 1970s, to require automakers to build cleaner vehicles than federal requirements demand.
The Trump administration will announce in the coming weeks a separate rule to roll back Obama-era fuel efficiency standards for light vehicles.
“This is the fight of a lifetime for us. We have to win this and I believe we will,” California Air Resources Board Chairman Mary Nichols said during a defiant press conference after Trump’s announcement.
Trump urged automakers to back the action, but so far none have publicly supported revocation of California’s authority. “Automakers should seize this opportunity because without this alternative to California, you will be out of business,” Trump wrote on Twitter.
Battle after battle
It is the latest in a series of Trump administration fights with California, the nation’s largest new-vehicle market, after high-speed rail funding, border wall funding and power plant regulations.
California, a heavily Democratic state that’s home to one in eight Americans, has filed more than 50 lawsuits and other protests over the president’s actions.
As part of the move, the Transportation Department will declare California is pre-empted from regulating light-vehicle fuel economy, sparking legal challenges over issues including states’ rights and climate change that administration officials say could ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The 1970 Clean Air Act, an expansion of the 1967 Air Quality Act, recognized California’s environmental efforts and authorized the state to set its own separate and stricter-than-federal vehicle emissions regulations. The goal was to help address the state’s extraordinary population growth, climate and topography that generated the country’s worst air pollution, notably in the Los Angeles basin.
Legal experts said the Trump administration may have a tough time defending a suit. A waiver has never been revoked in the 50-year-history of the Clean Air Act, said Julia Stein, a UCLA environmental law expert.
“Ironically, even though the administration insists that it will be creating ‘one national standard’ by revoking California’s waiver, it will actually be doing the opposite,” Stein wrote in a blog post Thursday.
California officials including Gov. Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Xavier Becerra said at a press conference that the state has received roughly 100 waivers to combat air pollution and they would defend the one underpinning light-vehicle rules.
“This is such a pivotal moment in the history of climate change,” Newsom said, citing statistics on the role of transportation in greenhouse gas emissions. “This is our legacy moment.”
With some 35 million vehicles in the state, and the transportation sector’s role as the top contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, Becerra said California’s ability to combat vehicle greenhouse gas emissions is critical to the state’s clean-air goals.
“Our message to those who claim to support states’ rights: Don’t trample on ours,” Becerra said. “Doing so would be an attempt to undo the progress we’ve made over the past decades.”
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao have a “major policy announcement” planned at the EPA’s headquarters Thursday morning, the agency said in a statement after Trump’s tweet.
Dave Schwietert, interim CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents General Motors, Toyota Motor Corp., Volkswagen Group, Ford Motor Co. and others, said the group will review the action and the still-pending federal emissions and fuel economy standards for 2021 to 2026 to evaluate how they affect member companies, employees and consumers.
Predictable emissions rules and fuel economy standards are vital for automakers because they approve engineering, production and other model changes several years in advance.
“Automakers support year-over-year increases in fuel economy standards that align with marketplace realities, and we support one national program as the best path to preserve good auto jobs, keep new vehicles affordable for more Americans and avoid a marketplace with different standards,” Schwietert said in a statement.
Trump met with senior officials last Thursday and agreed to green-light the plan to bar California from setting tailpipe emissions standards that are followed by a dozen other states or requiring a rising number of zero-emission vehicles, Reuters reported last week.
Under Trump, federal regulators have backed freezing emissions requirements for new cars and trucks at 2020 levels through 2026. Administration officials say the final regulation will include a modest boost in annual efficiency requirements but far less than what the Obama administration set in 2012.
The Trump plan’s preferred option would increase U.S. oil consumption by about 500,000 barrels per day by the 2030s but reduce automakers regulatory costs by more than $300 billion.
California wants 15.4 percent of vehicle sales by 2025 to be EVs or other zero-emission vehicles and 10 other states have adopted those requirements.
The Obama-era rules called for a fleetwide fuel efficiency average of 46.7 mpg by 2025, with average annual increases of about 5 percent, compared with 37 mpg by 2026 under the Trump administration’s preferred option to freeze requirements.
California, in challenging the Trump administration, argues that the United States has an obligation to protect the environment for future generations. “We’ll see you in court if you stand in our way,” Becerra said.