Clean Car Fight Kicks into High Gear

Part of NRDC's Year-End Series Reviewing 2019 Climate & Clean Energy Developments

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We are fighting for clean car policies that protect public health, consumer wallets and the environment. The year 2019 will be marked as the beginning of an intense legal battle to overturn the Trump administration’s reckless attempts to roll back commonsense clean car and fuel economy standards. Meanwhile, states leaders—feeling the need to protect their citizens—have both joined the fight and moved forward to set their own clean car standards.

Before getting into the details, it’s worth stepping back to remind ourselves how important clean car standards have been to help us address the climate crisis. Since these standards were put in place in 2012 they have resulted in the reduction of 415 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, making them one of the biggest federal actions taken on this issue. This is equivalent to the annual emissions from a whopping 88 million vehicles. While much more needs to be done, automakers have proven that they can meet these standards while also providing Americans with the vehicles and features they want.

The Trump administration triggered a brawl with states when it decided to illegally revoke authority granted by Congress through the Clean Air Act for states to adopt vehicle emission standards. In 1967, Congress authorized California to set standards stronger than federal standards and, in 1977, authorized other states to adopt the tougher California standards. As David Doniger explained, the rule to take states’ authority—signed in September by Trump’s  Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler—will lose in court.

Several automakers foresaw the impending chaos from drawn-out legal battles coming and moved to inoculate themselves. In July, Ford, Honda, BMW and VW, inked a voluntary deal with California in which the four companies would adhere to standards much stronger than the flatlining Trump has proposed.  

Unfortunately, other car companies are making a bad bet on Trump. Toyota, General Motors, Fiat Chrysler, Subaru, Nissan, Hyundai and Kia joined the Trump administration’s side in a lawsuit over state authority to set emission standards. Environmental groups like ours aren’t taking this lying down; we are putting pressure on these companies to live up to their green advertising campaigns. So much for the Prius green glow or Subaru’s embrace of the pristine outdoors, I guess.

Disappointed like me? Click here to send a message to the CEOs of these companies.

And don’t think that the fight ends with the state authority lawsuit. There’s been recent speculation that the administration is backing off their proposal to stall progress but will still finalize incredibly weak standards. The agencies’ own analysis shows this would mean millions of tons of additional pollution, cost consumers billions at the pump and cut tens of thousands of jobs. We are gearing up to fight these in court too.

NRDC is also in court combating the Trump administration for illegally circumventing penalties that automakers must pay for violating fuel economy standards. In 2018, we were victorious in stopping this dangerous industry giveaway and we are working to beat the Trump’s administration’s attempt to appeal the first court’s ruling.

States Move Forward

In 2019, four states moved to join California and a dozen other states in adopting clean car standards. In August, Colorado led the way in finalizing their Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) program, which compliments the Low Emission Vehicle GHG and smog pollutant standards it adopted in 2018.

In September, in additional rebukes to the Trump plan to rollback federal clean car standards, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and Minnesota Governor Tim Walz independently announced plans to adopt California clean car standards. In November, Governor Steve Sisolak was “excited to announce that Nevada will stand with other leading states and begin moving towards stronger vehicle emission standards.

The state regulatory process to adopt clean car standards typically takes a year or more to complete so Minnesota, New Mexico, Nevada and any new states can get started now so that they can adopt their programs just as the court fight over state authority is resolved, hopefully by late 2020.

States have also led the way on transportation electrification by deploying charging infrastructure, setting attractive electricity rates and boosting electric vehicle purchase incentives.

Congress should act now to do their part. Before the end of the year, it should pass the bipartisan Driving America Forward Act to extend electric vehicle tax credits and keep the market for the cleanest vehicles growing rapidly.

As I look to 2020, I’m grateful for the continued leadership of the states to move forward to clean up transportation while the Trump administration is stuck in reverse. I’m also hopeful that the courts will rule that state authority must be preserved and that the Trump administration’s senseless weakening of clean car and fuel economy standards is illegal. We need to get back to the business of cutting pollution, protecting our health and preventing dangerous climate change. We’ll be working in 2020 to shift back into the right direction. 

About the Authors

Luke Tonachel

Director, Clean Vehicles and Fuels Group, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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