CA Officials Reaffirm Clean Cars Standards [Updated]

[This is an update from my previous blog] Officials from the California Air Resources Board (ARB) voted unanimously to reaffirm the state's clean car standards today at their hearing in Riverside, CA – a city facing among the worst air pollution in the nation – giving an official green light to staying on course with the program.

The Board's vote means that California will maintain existing standards for passenger cars and trucks that will result in lower smog, particulate matter, and carbon pollution being emitted from vehicles.  But the impact will be felt far beyond California because 12 other states also have adopted California’s standards, collectively protecting 113 million U.S. residents from dangerous pollution and representing over a third of the U.S. vehicle market (states include CA, CT, DE, MA, MD, ME, NJ, NY, OR, PA, RI, VT, WA as well as DC).

Critical Public Health and Climate-Protecting Standards

The decision comes after years of an exhaustive and detailed analysis by ARB staff, culminating into a Midterm Review report, who concluded the state’s clean car standards can be met on time, using known technologies, at costs below those originally anticipated in 2012. Despite automakers’ convincing the Trump Administration to reopen federal clean car standards -- the first step to weakening them – California’s Board gave clear direction to stay-the-course on clean car standards, which act as a critical safeguard to weakening of the federal standards.  The Board also directed staff to begin a process to consider post-2025 standards in order to fulfill state laws that mandate cuts in pollution.

Those current obligations include new carbon reduction requirements by 2030 (SB32, AB197) required by the legislature, as well as requirements to meet state and federal air quality standards by 2031. Moving forward with this critical program means California is taking the necessary steps to protect its citizens and economy from pollution. 

Using standards to protect the public health and welfare of citizens

For half a century, California’s independent authority to set its own vehicle emissions standards has enabled the state to combat its severe air pollution problems. Should the Trump administration weaken the highly successful federal standards, state-level clean car programs are even more critical to protecting our health and reducing our fuel bills at the pump. Pressure will continue on the automakers to make clean cars for these states – representing 35% of the market – and the rest of the nation, resulting in much lower amounts of pollution being emitted.

Chairman Mary Nichols extended an olive branch to automakers by stating: “We invite you to sit down with us if you have concerns, as long as [those changes] don't decrease the environmental benefits," but was also critical of the some automakers' comments,"What did you mean when you said you didn’t really mean to question CA's existing waiver, when EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt then questions it [the next week after automakers met with the Administration]?  What did you mean when you didn’t want to question the overall thrust of the standards [when you asked for it to be reopened]? Why do another review?"

This follows Nichols' earlier statement:

We intend to stick by the commitments that we made. If for some reason the federal government and the industry decide to abandon those agreements that we all reached, we will have to re-examine our options. If the issue is are they going to relax the standards, then we would vehemently oppose that.

California clarifies its existing authority

Staff also argued that neither the evidence nor law support the Trump Administration's re-opening the completed federal review process, the first step to weakening federal clean car and fuel economy standards. ARB stated its intent to continue participating in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) process and to argue for continued emissions reductions supported by the evidence and data. As the Executive Officer of ARB at today’s hearing stated, "CA neither relinquished or accepted any limit to its regulatory authority by agreeing to regulatory flexibility” for automakers when they agreed in 2011 to allow federal compliance to also meet California’s requirements. 

Board rejects automaker asks to weaken ZEV standards

Automakers know that weakening California’s clean car standards will be an uphill battle. But they continued testing the state’s resolve, arguing for weakening of the Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) requirements, widely acknowledged as the most important program driving electric vehicles into the market. As I’ve blogged about before, there are many reasons why the ZEV program should be tuned-up and strengthened rather than weakened. ARB confirmed this by revealing similar findings to NRDC’s -- that the ZEV program would only deliver half as many vehicles as originally anticipated, meaning 2 million vehicles across clean car states would be required instead of the 4 million between 2018 – 2025, due to far more credits being generated than originally anticipated. Automakers such as Tesla, BYD, and Faraday Future testified or sent letters in support of a strong ZEV program.  

In addition, representatives from states including Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Oregon testified in support of the standards, reporting that sales in ZEV states outside of California increased by nearly 60 percent over the past year, a good indication that the standards are working and early markets are picking up. Given the data and information, the Board directed staff to reject automakers’ proposals to further weaken ZEV standards in those states and to maintain the ZEV program as-is.  

Automakers attempting to break down safeguards

In their comment letters, automakers continued to erroneously claim that California had previously committed to allowing them to comply with just the federal standards - instead of California's stronger standards - in the event that federal standards were weakened. As my colleague, Irene Gutierrez, testified on at today’s hearing, this is nonsense.  California, which reached an agreement in 2011 with federal agencies and automakers around a coordinated National Program, did so based on the greater environmental benefits it would deliver while still maintaining the state’s independent authority. As the Board stated publicly and in its formal Resolution when adopting the standards in January 2012.

WHEREAS, it is staff’s intent to allow manufacturers to demonstrate compliance with California’s greenhouse gas regulations for the 2017 through 2025 model years by demonstrating compliance with the greenhouse gas requirements of the 2017 through 2025 MY National Program, provided that U.S. EPA’s Final Rule does not weaken the proposed federal standards and the Program’s reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, except that California would maintain its own reporting requirements.  [Emphasis added]

Nearly all the automakers and their associations were at that 2012 hearing as well, which I also attended. While ARB continues to support the National Program as agreed to in 2011 and finalized in 2012, it never agreed to lower its own standards if the EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration were to do so. Rest assured, California does not need a permission slip to stick to its standards on the books. It’s up to the automakers to decide if they should take steps to try to abandon the agreement they made with California, EPA, and NHTSA. With 13 states and 113 million people benefiting from these clean car standards, there are ample reasons to say “yes” to California’s clean cars program and “no” to weakening standards that provide vital protections to state residents. 

Today, the Board did just that by saying “yes” to continuing to move forward with the clean cars program. 

About the Authors

Simon Mui

Director, California Vehicles and Fuels, Energy & Transportation program

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