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California defies Trump on climate change with new car emissions rules

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Despite problems with its ‘cap and trade’ carbon market, California has made progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Here are the six main sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the state.
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Despite problems with its ‘cap and trade’ carbon market, California has made progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Here are the six main sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the state.

Defying the Trump administration on climate change, California’s air-pollution agency ruled Friday that automakers must comply with the state’s strict rules on greenhouse gases if they want to continue selling cars here.

The California Air Resources Board approved a regulation that will significantly curtail carbon spewed by new cars sold in the state, beginning in 2021.

The board’s vote is likely to intensify the state’s conflict with the Trump administration over greenhouse gases from cars, a fight that’s been brewing since shortly after President Donald Trump took office.

In August, Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency said it plans to relax the standards on tailpipe emissions — and force California to accept the new national regulations. California has vowed to fight the EPA’s plan, in court if necessary, and Friday’s vote is intended to solidify the state’s opposition to the Trump regulations.

“This is California girding for that battle,” said Deborah Sivas, an environmental law professor at Stanford University.

Automakers, who say dealing with multiple standards would be a logistical nightmare, urged the Air Resources Board to postpone the decision while the state is still talking to the Trump administration about a compromise. Friday’s vote “could lock the state into a position that would make further negotiations with the federal administration impossible,” the Association of Global Automakers said in written testimony to the board.

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But California officials, urged on by representatives of seven states that have aligned themselves with California, were in no mood to back down. Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols said the state remains willing to talk with the Trump administration but so far is being ignored.

“They do not see us as a partner or a collaborator in this process,” Nichols said.

Board member Hector De La Torre, a former Democratic assemblyman, added: “We have rights and we’re going to exercise those rights to the hilt.” He also scolded automakers for asking the Trump administration to roll back the standards in the first place.

The EPA says relaxing the rules will save car buyers an average of $1,850 on every new vehicle purchased. Yet California officials and environmentalists say greener cars, despite their higher sticker prices, more than pay for themselves because of dramatic improvements in fuel mileage. As a practical matter, the most effective way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from cars is by making lighter, more fuel efficient vehicles.

Tailpipe emissions account for about 28 percent of all greenhouse gases, according to the Air Resources Board. Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration has made fighting climate change a signature environmental issue, and the air board said allowing Trump’s plan to take effect would put millions of extra tons of carbon into the air.

The Trump administration, however, said the increased carbon emissions would be minimal — and wouldn’t matter in the scheme of things.

A draft environmental impact statement by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is working with the EPA on the standards, says temperatures will rise 7 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century regardless of what happens to tailpipe emissions, the Washington Post reported Friday. That’s considerably higher than many scientists have projected and could exacerbate the impacts of climate change.

The fight between Sacramento and Washington revolves around a complicated agreement struck early in the Obama administration. Starting in 2009, the state and federal governments essentially compromised on regulations to gradually scale back carbon emissions, year by year, on new cars.

Despite the compromise, California also retained the right to impose more stringent rules — a right it has under the federal Clean Air Act because of the state’s historically bad pollution.

It took this step because there were minor differences between the state and federal greenhouse gas regulations. Even so, the state agreed that any automaker that followed the Obama administration’s regulations on greenhouse gases would be “deemed to comply” with California’s rules.

Now the Trump administration is derailing the compromise. Not only is it planning to relax the federal greenhouse gas restrictions, it announced in August it expects to revoke California’s right to enforce its rules within its borders. The Trump administration won’t finalize the new regulations until later this year.

The rules currently in effect, in California and nationwide, would reduce tailpipe carbon emissions about roughly one third over the next seven years. They would also increase fuel efficiencies from an average of about 35 miles per gallon to more than 54 mpg. The Trump plan announced in August would raise average fuel economy standards to an average of about 37 mpg.

By revoking California’s special rights under the Clean Air Act, the Trump administration is also going after the state’s “advanced clean car” regulations. Those regulations require automakers to dramatically increase the number of electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids they sell in California — from about 420,000 today to 1 million in 2025

The EPA said the mandate is unfair because automakers are raising prices of traditional vehicles in an effort to subsidize costs of the advanced cars, which are more costly and less popular.

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