California Zooms Ahead On Clean Cars Despite Federal Threats

California remains committed to moving forward with its innovative clean cars program, even with rumblings about federal rollbacks growing louder. Last Friday, during a Bloomberg New Energy Finance conference, California’s top air quality regulator Mary Nichols refused to reverse course on the state’s clean cars program, despite federal threats, stating that “California’s standards have proven to be the harbinger of future federal standards.” 

Recent statements from EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee signal his skepticism about states like California leading the way in the fight against climate change, and hint at his willingness to try to take away key tools in that fight, like California’s waiver to set stricter vehicle emissions standards than the federal government.

Undeterred, California keeps on pressing forward. Earlier this month, Governor Brown signed an executive order which would put 5 million electric vehicles on the road by 2030 and dedicate $1.25 billion of cap-and-trade proceeds to reducing carbon pollution and improving public health.

At Friday’s conference, Nichols seemed to relish the prospect of a fight over the federal government interfering with California’s clean cars waiver: “I think you could say there will be a war with many states lining up on our side, not only clean car states but others that don’t appreciate the federal government preempting state rights.”

As I’ve blogged about earlier, California’s clean cars waiver is one of the key tools in our fight to curb greenhouse gas and air pollutant emissions. Congress explicitly recognized the need for California to set its own emissions standards, writing a provision into the Clean Air Act which allows California to set its own standards after receiving a waiver from the federal government that can only be denied in extraordinary circumstances. 

Trying to take away California’s waiver would hamstring the state’s ability to innovate and take necessary measures to protect its citizens. And those powers are still sorely needed. The state suffers some of the worst air quality in the nation. The transportation sector generates California’s largest share of greenhouse gas emissions, producing nearly 40 percent of the state’s emissions. While the science is still evolving, the greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change are among the main culprits responsible for California’s most destructive wildfire season to date, and an unusually low snowpack.   

In addition, taking away California’s waiver would go against what the public wants throughout the country, and where automakers are headed. Consumers want cleaner and more efficient cars. Over the past decade, automakers have been able to deliver what consumers want. As shown by EPA’s most recent “Fuel Economy Trends” report, covered by my colleague Luke Tonachel, new cars and trucks have gotten cleaner, today burning on average 20 percent less gas than they did a decade ago. Strong standards are needed to keep driving automakers to clean up the nation’s car and truck fleet.

Attempting to scrap California’s clean cars program sets EPA and automakers up for a long and difficult legal fight, since the Clean Air Act grants California the ability to take independent action to clean up its air and climate. If it comes to that, we’ll be there in court to stand by California’s side and protect the public’s interest.

This blog provides general information, not legal advice. If you need legal help, please consult a lawyer in your state.

About the Authors

Irene Gutierrez

Senior Attorney, Nature Program

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