Trump to revoke California’s authority on clean-air rules. ‘We will fight this,’ Newsom says

President Donald Trump’s administration is expected Wednesday to rescind California’s unique legal authority to set air pollution rules that are stricter than the federal government’s, as a battle escalates over greenhouse gas emissions from cars.

The move is certain to trigger another round of litigation between the two antagonists — and represents one of the most dramatic developments yet in the more than two years of disputes over issues ranging from immigration to water policy.

Formal revocation of the state’s authority is expected to be announced at an afternoon event at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Washington while Trump is visiting California on the second day of a two-day fundraising swing in the state.

An auto-industry source told McClatchy that Elaine Chao, the U.S. secretary of transportation, will attend the event in Washington as well. Officials with the EPA and the Department of Transportation didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Widespread media reports that the EPA would revoke California’s authority drew a swift rebuke from Gov. Gavin Newsom, who vowed to fight the move in court.

“California won’t ever wait for permission from Washington to protect the health and safety of children and families,” he said in a prepared statement. “We will fight this latest attempt and defend our clean car standards.”

Because of California’s historical air pollution problems, the federal Clean Air Act gives California the right to establish stricter guidelines than the federal government — so long as it gets a waiver from the EPA. The Obama administration granted the state such a waiver on greenhouse gas emissions from cars, although the state and federal governments wound up agreeing on a joint plan to reduce carbon emissions by about 30 percent by 2025.

Almost from the day he took office, though, Trump has vowed to roll back the Obama standards, and laid plans to revoke California’s waiver.

That prompted California in July to engineer a major coup: Ford, Honda, BMW and Volkswagen cut a deal with Newsom and the California Air Resources Board to reduce carbon emissions at a far swifter rate than the Trump administration wants. The deal represents a compromise on the original Obama standards by giving the automakers an extra year, until 2026, to meet the climate change targets.

Newsom later announced that Mercedes Benz is on the verge of agreeing to the same standards as the other four companies.

The announcement reportedly infuriated Trump. Earlier this month, lawyers for the EPA and the federal Department of Transportation sent a letter to Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols, saying the deal with the automakers appears to be “unlawful and invalid.” Separately, numerous media reported that the U.S. Justice Department had launched an antitrust investigation into the four carmakers’ participation in the deal.

Trump’s efforts to rescind California’s special rights under the Clean Air Act could be on shaky legal ground, said Julia Stein, an expert on climate law at UCLA.

“California has some really strong arguments,” she said.

Among other things, she said the EPA has never before rescinded a waiver that it’s already granted. There’s nothing in the Clean Air Act, which passed in 1970, that gives the EPA the power to revoke a waiver, she said.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who has sued the Trump administration more than 50 times, said “we’ll see you in court if you stand in our way.”

Generally speaking, carmakers reduce greenhouse gas emissions by building lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicles. Because of that, the Trump administration says California’s efforts are illegal because only the federal government has authority to regulate fuel efficiency.

The Trump administration says California’s plans are bad for consumers because carmakers will have to increase new-car prices significantly to comply with the stricter standards.

“The average sticker price of a new vehicle reached $39,500 in the first half of 2019 — this is simply out of reach for many American families,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a speech to the National Automobile Dealers Association on Tuesday. “The current trajectory of the (carbon) standards is one of the factors driving costs higher.”

California officials, though, say consumers will benefit because they’ll be spending a lot less to fill their tanks.

State officials also complain that, without the EPA waiver, they’d be unable to enforce California’s mandates requiring automakers to double their sales of electric vehicles and other clean cars in the state.

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Dale Kasler covers climate change, the environment, economics and the convoluted world of California water. He also covers major enterprise stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. He joined The Bee in 1996 from the Des Moines Register and graduated from Northwestern University.
Michael Wilner joined McClatchy as its White House correspondent in 2019. He previously served as Washington bureau chief for The Jerusalem Post, where he led coverage of the Iran nuclear talks, the Syrian refugee crisis and the 2016 US presidential campaign. Wilner holds degrees from Claremont McKenna College and Columbia University and is a native of New York City.