By Paul Cort, Earthjustice
The future of the nation’s clean car protections is on the table, and Andrew Wheeler, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is moving forward with a plan that will unleash tailpipe pollution across the country.
On Nov. 22, Earthjustice and Sierra Club, together with a broad coalition of public health and environmental groups, filed a lawsuit against Wheeler’s EPA, challenging its revocation of California’s waiver for its greenhouse gas emission standards for new motor vehicles, as well as the state’s zero emission vehicle standards.
The Trump administration is rolling back clean car standards and, strikingly, is trying to stop states from leading efforts to clean up our air through vehicle emissions protections. That’s important because while the federal government sets standards on how much air pollution cars and trucks can emit under the 1970 Clean Air Act, a provision of the law allows states to set more protective standards.
The Trump administration would rather force everyone to breathe the same higher levels of pollution. Who benefits? The oil industry. Who’s harmed? More than a hundred million Americans who live in states that set higher expectations for their air.
Fortunately, the law in this case is long established and sits squarely behind the people, not the polluters.
The Clean Air Act of 1970 expressly gives California the authority to set emission standards for cars and trucks. The provision has been in place for nearly half a century.
Congress wrote these provisions into the law because California was already way ahead of the federal government in tackling smog. In fact, California’s regulation of tailpipe emissions predates the creation of the U.S. EPA. California passed the country’s first tailpipe regulations in 1966 in response to its notorious smog problems that at times cut visibility down to three city blocks in Los Angeles, soured the air with the smell of bleach, and stung people’s eyes. The leaders of the post-War era brought us out of this brown-and-orange haze with sensible rules of the road for automakers, with California setting the pace.
To require manufacturers to go beyond federal standards, California need only meet three conditions:
- The state must show necessity for stricter standards.
- It must show that the state standards are at least as stringent as the federal ones.
- The state must show that the regulations are otherwise consistent with federal standards.
If these basic conditions are met, EPA must “waive” federal preemption and allow the California standards. The EPA has consistently concluded that California’s low emission vehicle standards meet the three conditions, including state standards to control greenhouse gas emissions. The EPA approved the waiver for California’s current Advanced Clean Car standards in 2013. Under the Clean Air Act, other states can opt in to California’s more protective standards.
Twelve other states, and the District of Columbia, adopted California’s greenhouse gas standards under Section 177 of the Clean Air Act: Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maine, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington. Ten states (Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont) have adopted California’s zero emissions vehicle standards that set goals for the percentage of electric cars sold in a state.
In the 2000s, the Bush administration tried to deny a waiver application on the grounds that it wasn’t necessary, but the administration ultimately failed in that fight.
In this case, Wheeler is trying to revoke an already-approved waiver. No administration has tried to outright revoke a state waiver until now.
In addition, the Trump administration is claiming that even though the Clean Air Act allows California to adopt vehicle emission standards, another law — the Energy Policy and Conservation Act — silently took away much of California’s authority. This is not a winning argument.
In many legal disputes, courts will defer to agency legal interpretations where the law is unclear. But in the case of preempting state authority to protect the health and welfare of its residents, agencies do not get that deference. Add to that Congress’s explicit protection of California’s authority, and the lawyers at EPA are holding a losing hand.
By trashing the country’s national standards and throwing states’ authority into reverse, the Trump administration is preparing to unleash a staggering dose of climate pollution.
If Trump’s proposed rollback stands, in 2030, cars will pump an additional 120 million metric tons of climate-disrupting pollution into our atmosphere. It will be the pollution equivalent of firing up 30 coal-fired power plants. This pollution toll will mushroom — in the year 2040, it would be the equivalent of 43 coal-fired power plants. State governments that recognize climate pollution as an existential threat would lose a key tool to act for their communities.
The health of over a hundred million Americans could be hurt if the administration succeeds in revoking the Clean Air Act waiver for those states opting for stricter standards.
Vehicles are the main source of dangerous forms of air pollution, including ozone — a key factor in asthma and bronchitis — and particulate matter, which is blamed for up to 30,000 premature deaths each year. They are also the main source of localized pollution problems such as nitrogen dioxide, which primarily affects those communities, often low-income or communities of color, that border major roads and freeways.
On top of the health and climate impacts, everyday Americans can expect to feel the economic sting of this rollback if it stands. In 2025, Americans will pay an extra $17 billion at the gas pump while the oil industry reaps its rewards. In 2040, American consumers will pay an eye-popping $55 billion extra at the pump. The nation’s clean car standards are expected to create 250,000 jobs nationwide— President Trump’s action could cut that in half.
The Trump administration’s proposed new clean car standards are misleadingly written with a focus on safety issues that spin scientific data. But states and the American people won’t be misled. We know that unleashing tailpipe pollution is bad for our air, our economy and our future.
Expect to see strong pushback from environmental organizations including Earthjustice, California’s attorney general and Air Resources Board, and the 13 states that have adopted the stricter standards. In the face of the administration’s threats, Colorado’s governor has already announced the state will refuse to use Trump’s weaker vehicle emissions standards, and instead opt in to California’s vehicle emissions standards. Earthjustice — along with numerous other organizations as well as states, cities, and companies — filed comments in Oct. 2018 defending the authority of California and other states to limit carbon emissions, and urging the EPA to keep and strengthen the federal standards.
Earthjustice has filed more than 120 lawsuits to protect clean air, clean water, public land and endangered wildlife from the Trump administration’s anti-environmental actions. Many of these lawsuits are challenging reckless decisions at the EPA. We have won most of the cases that have been decided so far.