Updated September 20, 2019
As global temperatures climb, the federal government is threatening to blunt a major weapon in California’s fight against climate change: the power to police tailpipe emissions. Tailpipes are the biggest source of greenhouse gas pollution in the state.
At risk are Obama-era targets to curb greenhouse gases in car exhaust and increase fuel efficiency nationwide. President Donald Trump has threatened to roll back these goals, and has revoked a decades-old exemption that lets California make its own clean air rules. By the Trump administration’s own estimates, these rollbacks are projected to increase carbon emissions so much by 2025 that it would be equivalent to putting more than 9 million vehicles on the road.
Although the rollbacks aren’t yet official, California has leveled lawsuit after lawsuit at the Trump administration — and vowed to fight any finalized rollbacks in court. The battle boiled over this summer when California and four major automakers went around the president and cut a deal to continue curbing greenhouse gas pollution. As yet more companies indicated they were likely to sign on to California’s plan, an exasperated Trump tweeted at automakers: “Foolish executives!”
The feds went a step further in early September, telling California Air Resources Board chief Mary Nichols that the deal with automakers appeared “unlawful and invalid.” At the same time, the U.S. Department of Justice opened an antitrust investigation into the four car companies working with California on the still-unfinalized deal.
This is more than just another duel between Trump and the “Resistance State.” At stake: California’s ability to meet its ambitious climate goals, which experts say will require substantially cleaning up the cars and trucks we drive.
The state's dramatic, difficult aim
The good news is that California cut the greenhouse gases it pumped out in 2017 by an amount equal to roughly 5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, according to the latest numbers from the California Air Resources Board. That’s about a 1 percent decrease over the previous year, and it makes 2017 the second year that California beat an imminent goal to reduce greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020.
The bad news is that the state has to almost triple those cuts going forward for California to meet its next ambitious goal: slashing greenhouse gases by another 40 percent by 2030.
Emissions from transportation are actually rising in California
The reality is that in recent years, greenhouse gas emissions from cars, trucks, boats, trains, and planes have failed to decline in California. In fact, they’ve actually gone up.
That’s an ominous sign because transportation is the biggest greenhouse gas polluter in the state, accounting for more than 40 percent of statewide emissions. And that doesn’t count greenhouse gases from biofuels like ethanol, biodiesel, and renewable diesel, which aren’t included in the air board’s inventory.
Although 2017 saw the smallest increase in transportation emissions since the last time they dipped in 2013, the sector is headed in the wrong direction — largely driven by passenger vehicles like cars and SUVs.
The Golden State's special powers
For decades, California has relied on the bureaucratic equivalent of a superpower: It has had special federal permission to make tougher air regulations than the U.S. government.
The origin of this dates back to the smog that began choking Los Angeles in the 1940s. After a scientist from the California Institute of Technology identified tailpipe emissions as a definite source of the eye-watering haze, California became the first state in the country to set limits for poisonous and smog-forming ingredients in vehicle exhaust.
California’s early lead on tackling air pollution set it apart. So when changes to the Clean Air Act decades ago stopped individual states from making their own tailpipe emissions rules, California got a pass. If California’s rules are just as tough, or tougher, than the federal ones, the EPA must grant it a waiver. There are only a few specific circumstances when the EPA can deny the waiver, including if it decides California is being “arbitrary and capricious,” or that California doesn’t actually need the waiver to address “compelling and extraordinary conditions.”
The trouble with tailpipe emissions
Although smog was never vanquished, California’s clean air fight in recent decades expanded to take aim at planetary climate change. The planet is heating up: all together, the past five years were the warmest on record, NASA reported in February. Average global surface temperatures have climbed about 2℉ since the 1880s, according to NASA. And there’s a scientific consensus that human activities — particularly ones that produce greenhouse gases — are the primary driver.
Cars belch out a bouquet of greenhouse gases, including refrigerants that seep from air conditioners. Most of all, though, cars pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, where it traps heat. The EPA estimates that one average car, in one average year, produces 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide (give or take, depending on the car, fuel, and distance driven). That may not seem like much, but with 25.6 million registered cars in California in 2018, it adds up. Passenger vehicles produced a bundle of greenhouse gases equivalent to roughly 119.9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2017, according to the state air board’s latest numbers.
The waiver wars: Round 1
The Clean Air Act’s special exemption for California means the state can set its own, stricter standards for tailpipe emissions. (It can’t, however, make its own fuel economy rules — that’s under a different federal act for which California has no special pass.)
Even so, California still needs to ask the EPA for a waiver whenever it wants to make new rules for vehicle exhaust or change existing rules on the books. The state has received dozens of these waivers, covering everything from refrigerated truck trailers to ships at berth in California ports.
In 2002, California took the lead again: it passed a law calling for major cuts to greenhouse gases in tailpipe emissions from passenger vehicles. Car makers and dealerships sued. And when the air board applied for a waiver — the first to address climate change — President George W. Bush’s EPA took years before ultimately denying the request. California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s office called the outright denial a first.
The Bush EPA’s rationale? That greenhouse gases and climate change were global issues, not ones specific to California. Now, with climate change worsening California’s wildfires, the state is still recovering from its worst fire year on record as it braces for dangerous months ahead. And the fight over California’s power to tackle climate change continues.
Obama sides with California
When President Barack Obama took office, the EPA reversed its denial and gave California a waiver to set limits on greenhouse gases in exhaust from new vehicles.
The Obama administration also joined forces with the state to develop nationwide standards that tracked closely with California’s rules. The EPA set limits on greenhouse gas emissions, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration set fuel economy targets for new cars and light trucks — first through model year 2016, then through model year 2025.
Thirteen automakers and the United Auto Workers union signed on to the current rules. And in January 2017, right before Obama left office, the EPA concluded that automakers were well on their way to meeting the goals for model years 2022 to 2025.
Waiver Wars, Round 2: Trump vs. California
Then President Trump, who incorrectly claimed that climate change is a Chinese hoax, was elected. Even before he took office, automakers pushed his transition team to revisit the Obama-era clean car standards. Automakers weren’t the only ones, either: The New York Times discovered a secretive oil-industry campaign to gut the fuel economy regulations that threaten their bottom line.
In April 2018, the Trump administration concluded that the Obama-era standards for model year 2022 through 2025 light-duty vehicles “may be too stringent,” and called for revisions. A few months later, the Trump administration unveiled new plans to freeze greenhouse gas and miles-per-gallon standards at 2020 levels through model year 2026. That’s expected to flatline the fleet’s fuel efficiency at an average of 37 miles-per-gallon.
The steep rollbacks were more than the auto industry had anticipated, forcing major carmakers to backpedal from an alliance they’d once cultivated. “We support increasing clean car standards through 2025 and are not asking for a rollback,” Ford executives Bill Ford and Jim Hackett wrote in a blog post. At that point, the Ford executives said, the company was already on track to invest $11 billion in cleaning up its cars.
13 other states adopt the California way
Automakers acknowledge that they’re especially worried about a lengthy fight between California and the Trump administration that splits the car market. In a June letter to President Trump, 17 major car companies pointed to the risk of “an extended period of litigation and instability, which could prove as untenable as the current program.” (To be clear, they weren’t asking to stick to the Obama-era standards; in a separate letter, the car companies asked California Gov. Gavin Newsom to meet the Trump administration half-way.)
After all, California brings some serious backup to a battle over the country’s cars. Although other states are barred from making their own clean car rules, they can adopt California’s — and a lot of them have. The 14 states (including California) that already require car makers to comply with California’s standards for tailpipe and greenhouse gas pollution make up more than a third of the market for cars and light-duty trucks. And ten of them also follow California’s rules requiring carmakers to sell zero-emission vehicles such as electric cars in their states.
But wait — can’t California just make its own rules?
So what about those federal waivers California has to make its own rules, including a waiver that allows California to run aspects of its Advanced Clean Cars program?
Trump revoked California’s waiver to set its own tailpipe-emissions standards on Sept. 18, tweeting that his decision would make cars cheaper and safer and lead to more jobs. His long-expected announcement prompted denunciations from state leaders and presaged a drawn-out legal battle.
“See you in court,” Gov. Gavin Newsom tweeted in response, calling the federal decision “a continuation of a political vendetta.”
California’s air board is confident of its legal standing, in part, state officials say, because the federal agency has failed to make a scientific or technical case for the waiver decision.
“Their work’s been bad. Their facts are bad,” said Craig Segall, assistant chief counsel for the California Air Resources Board, referring to the EPA’s analysis, which has been widely criticized. Anything can happen in litigation, he acknowledged, but “we’ve got the better of the argument, and it helps to have facts on your side.”
On Sept. 20, California and 22 other states sued the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, arguing that the administration exceeded its authority, made its decision without adequate justification and violated federal environmental law.
The state’s Advanced Clean Cars program sets limits on greenhouse gases and air pollutants in the exhaust from passenger vehicles. The program also requires automakers to serve up an escalating percentage of zero-emission vehicles to California’s car buyers.
California’s clean-air enforcers say getting more clean cars on the road will be key to curbing smog and meeting the state’s goal to cut greenhouse gases by another 40 percent. Trump’s rollbacks are expected to take California even farther from that target — increasing California’s greenhouse gas pollution by the equivalent of 12 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2030 alone, according to data from the air board.
Climate truth and consequences
It’s tough to compare the costs and benefits of the Trump and Obama regulations. The two administrations had different focuses, used different models, and made different assumptions, according to the Congressional Research Service. And they came up with vastly different numbers, Yale economist Kenneth Gillingham and a team of researchers reported last year in the journal Science.
Reconciling the analyses will be a challenge. In a strike against transparency, a federal judge has ruled that the Trump administration won’t need to show its work. The lawsuit was over the model that the Obama administration had used when it determined that its clean car rules were “practical and feasible” for carmakers. And the decision means the Trump administration doesn’t need to disclose it.
Art of the deal, California edition
“California will fight this stupidity in every conceivable way possible,” then-Governor Jerry Brown tweeted when the Trump administration rolled out the proposed rollbacks in August 2018. A year later, the Trump administration’s proposal still hasn’t been finalized, but California has been fighting back with lawsuits in the meantime — and promises more to come.
In February 2019, the Trump administration announced that it would stop talks with California, saying California’s air board “failed to put forward a productive alternative.” California’s air board chief Mary Nichols said in a June hearing that wasn’t true, and that the White House had unilaterally cut off conversations.
Automakers pleaded with the two powers to reconcile, but the White House said it still planned to finalize its proposal. Since then, California charted its own detour around the rollbacks. The state cut a deal in July with four major automakers: Honda, Ford, Volkswagen and BMW.
The voluntary agreement is still being hammered out. But broadly, the car companies agreed to follow California’s car rules and recognize the state’s authority. In return, California would essentially give the four companies an extra year to reach greenhouse gas reduction goals. The terms also sweeten the deal for bringing electric vehicles to market by giving carmakers extra credits for deploying clean cars that can count towards their emissions targets. It’s a compromise that trades some immediate greenhouse gas reductions for more development of electric vehicles.
California’s car deal apparently incensed the president, who reportedly called automakers to the White House to coax them into supporting the rollbacks. News that yet more carmakers were considering signing on prompted Trump to tweet:
The latest move against the California deal came in early September, with the U.S. EPA and Department of Transportation asserting that “the so-called ‘framework agreement’ appears to be inconsistent with federal law.” The same day, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Department of Justice started an investigation into whether the four carmakers broke federal competition law.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom said California remains undeterred. “The Trump administration has been attempting and failing to bully car companies for months now,” he said in an emailed statement. “California stands up to bullies and will keep fighting for stronger clean car protections that protect the health and safety of our children and families.”
And the fight continues.