California environmental regulators, taking a defiant stand against President Donald Trump on climate change, reaffirmed their commitment Thursday to tough standards to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars.
The California Air Resources Board voted unanimously to move ahead with progressively stricter tailpipe emissions regulations, along with a separate mandate that requires automakers to sell more zero-emissions vehicles.
The vote on greenhouse gas restrictions suggests a potentially bruising legal battle with the White House could be coming. Trump last week ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to review the greenhouse gas regulations, which were launched in California years ago and adopted as the nationwide standard by former President Barack Obama.
Amid complaints from auto executives that the rules are too stringent, Trump hinted he will weaken the regulations and told autoworkers in Michigan he’s acting to “defend your jobs, your factories.” A final decision from the EPA is expected in about a year.
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Although the air resources board has known for years it would revisit its rules, Friday’s vote became an early test of California’s willingness to fight the White House over climate change. It’s unclear whether California would have the right to impose tougher regulations than the country as a whole, and legal experts say litigation is likely.
Board member Hector De La Torre, mocking the Trump administration over its struggles with health care legislation and the immigrant travel ban, said it was essential to move ahead with the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols scolded automakers for asking Trump to weaken the regulations.
“What were you thinking when you threw yourself on the mercy of the Trump administration to solve your problems?” Nichols said.
Meeting in Riverside, the air board decided the greenhouse gas restrictions are realistic and won’t create unreasonable burdens on the industry. Complying with the rules will require “incremental improvements to conventional technologies,” air board engineer Pippin Mader told the board.
The greenhouse gas standards are already set in stone for cars made between now and 2021; the review ordered by Trump covers standards that will apply between 2022 and 2025.
Environmentalists cheered the air board’s decisions, saying it was up to California to stand up to the Trump administration. “All eyes are looking at us today, particularly given last week’s disappointing announcement,” Simon Mui of the Natural Resources Defense Council told the board.
The standards would slash tailpipe greenhouse gas emissions by one third. Average fuel mileage would jump from about 36 miles per gallon today to 54 mpg in 2025.
Whether California can get away with its stance remains to be seen.
Air pollution standards are established by the federal government. The 1970 Clean Air Act allows California, because of its severe air pollution problems, to set tougher standards if it gets a waiver from the EPA. If California gets a waiver, other states can adopt California’s rules.
In this case, the Obama administration granted a waiver, a dozen other states followed California’s lead, and then Obama agreed to make the California rules the law of the land.
If the Trump administration rolls back the rules, California officials believe they would still have the right to enforce their standards for cars sold in the state. That would also apply to the dozen other states.
But the Trump administration could decide that California and the other states lack that authority. That would almost certainly lead to litigation.
“If a divorce is going to happen …we are going to litigate that divorce strongly,” said De La Torre, a former Democratic assemblyman. Senior environmental officials from three of the states that have adopted California’s standards – Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York – appeared at the board meeting to urge California to stick with the regulations.
The air board also reaffirmed a policy requiring automakers to accelerate sales of zero-emission vehicles and plug-in hybrids in California. The rules call for more than 1 million vehicles on the road by 2025, up from about 250,000 today. Nine other states have signed onto California’s regulations. The review of greenhouse gas rules ordered by Trump doesn’t affect the zero-emission and plug-in rules.