WASHINGTON – The Trump administration plans to revoke California's right to set stricter air pollution standards for cars and light trucks, according to two senior administration officials, as part of a larger effort to weaken an Obama-era climate policy aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions from the nation's auto fleet.
The move sets up another legal clash between the federal government and the nation's most populous state, which for decades under administrations of both major political parties exercised authority to put in place more stringent fuel economy standards. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have vowed to adopt California's standards if they diverge from the federal government's, as have several major automakers.
It's the latest in a series of high-profile conflicts for a state accustomed to ridicule from President Donald Trump, including legal fights over immigration, education, health care and the environment.
It also has extended to personal attacks from the president. Trump has called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, a "nasty, vindictive, horrible person." He has blamed Democratic state officials for "mismanagement" of forests after deadly wildfires destroyed thousands of homes and killed dozens of Californians. More recently, he has criticized the state for the handling of its homelessness crisis and threatened to intervene.
Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Transportation Department proposed taking away the waiver that California received under the Obama administration to set tailpipe emissions for cars and pickups, as part of a rule to freeze mileage standards for these vehicles at roughly 37 mph from 2020 to 2026. The Obama-era standards had required these fleets to average nearly 51 mpg by model year 2025.
In July, California forged an agreement with four companies — Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW of North America — under which they pledged to produce fleets averaging nearly 50 mpg by model year 2026.
One of the central arguments in the White House's proposal — according to the two senior administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity — is that the 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act gives only the federal government the right to set fuel economy standards.
By seeking to strip California of its autonomy to set stricter standards, Trump officials are forcing auto companies to choose whether they will side with California or the federal government. As part of July's deal with the California Air Resources Board, the four carmakers agreed to support the state's right to set its own tailpipe standards.
The EPA declined to comment Tuesday. But in a speech to the National Automobile Dealers Association, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler made his intentions clear. "We embrace federalism and the role of the states, but federalism does not mean that one state can dictate standards for the nation," he said.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra vowed to sue over the administration's plan to revoke California's long-standing waiver, saying the state's clean car standards are "achievable, science-based, and a boon for hard-working American families and public health."
Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom added that the Trump plan "could have devastating consequences for our kids' health and the air we breathe, if California were to roll over. But we will not — we will fight this latest attempt and defend our clean car standards. California, global markets, and Mother Nature will prevail."
Environmentalists promised to join California in its legal opposition. "There's nothing in the Clean Air Act or EPA regulations providing for this unprecedented action," Martha Roberts, a senior attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund, said in an interview. "The legislative history is explicit about broad authority for California. This is very well established legal authority that's firmly anchored in the Clean Air Act."
Marlo Lewis, a senior fellow at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, said in an interview that the move could make it easier for automakers to embrace the White House's proposed rollback of gas mileage standards.
"The only reason the automakers are not on board with Trump is because they're afraid of the retaliation from California if Trump loses," Lewis said. "The Trump administration really has to kick the bully off the playing field, and then the automakers will start talking more sensibly."