California plans to slash greenhouse gas emissions from cars. Nationally, the Trump administration wants to ease up on those restrictions to make life easier for automakers.
On Tuesday, after nearly a year of negotiations, the possibility of a compromise appeared to go up in smoke.
Scott Pruitt, administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, indicated Tuesday he's ready to fight California over the amount of allowable emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from automobile tailpipes.
"California is not the arbiter of these issues," Pruitt said in an interview with Bloomberg news. The state "shouldn't and can't dictate to the rest of the country what these levels are going to be."
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Legal experts said Pruitt's comments suggest an impasse over greenhouse gas rules that could wind up with California suing the federal government.
Pruitt's statement, "if not a declaration of war, is a bit of throwing down the gauntlet," said Richard Frank, an environmental-law professor at UC Davis.
The dispute is over rules established by the Obama administration that would force automakers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by one-third for new cars sold between 2022 and 2025. These reductions in emissions would translate into substantial gains in fuel economy, to an average of more than 50 miles per gallon for new cars by 2025.
President Donald Trump last March said the regulations were too stringent and directed Pruitt's EPA to reconsider the rules. Barely a week later, the California Air Resources Board thumbed its nose at the feds by reconfirming its commitment to the Obama-era regulations.
Since then, however, California and Pruitt's agency have been negotiating informally over a compromise. The auto industry is eager for a truce because a lengthy fight between California and the U.S. government would make it difficult for manufacturers to plan for future models.
"Having this kind of regulatory uncertainty is very problematic for them," said Air Resources Board member Dan Sperling, a UC Davis professor of transportation.
California is the largest car market in the nation; more than 2 million new vehicles were sold in the state last year.
Sperling said he has been hearing recently from sources in the auto industry that a compromise between the EPA and California was falling apart. "It has been kind of heading in that direction lately," Sperling said. "Too bad."
California officials had suggested relaxing the 2025 standards in exchange for extending the regulations to 2030. Pruitt dismissed that idea in Tuesday's interview. In response, the state Air Resources Board said in a prepared statement that it will "continue with development of post-2025 vehicle standards — to ensure we reach our air quality and climate goals."
In most instances the federal government has the authority to regulate air pollution and fuel mileage. But California has some muscle, too. The 1970 federal Clean Air Act gives California — because of its longstanding air pollution problems — the right to set stricter standards, as long as the U.S. EPA grants the state a waiver.
California has received a waiver each time it has asked, with one noteworthy exception: The George W. Bush administration rejected California's request to regulate greenhouse gas tailpipe emissions. California sued the government, but the issue became moot when President Barack Obama took office, overturned Bush's decision and made an agreement with California to gradually reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the course of several years.
Now Pruitt has signaled he's committed to loosening restrictions, putting California and the federal government on a possible collision course in court.
Pruitt is expected to make his final decision on the greenhouse gas regulations by April 1.
At the same time, the EPA and California are gearing up for a separate fight over greenhouse gas emissions for tractor trailers. Last month the Air Resources Board imposed tougher rules on tailpipe emissions from big rigs — while the Trump administration has announced it might roll back those regulations on the federal level.