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Trump moves to roll back pollution standards for cars, setting up conflict with California

California, Trump could fight over auto pollution standards

Former California state Senator Fran Pavley, a pioneer in climate change legislation, talks about the potential rollback of federal standards for greenhouse gas emissions.
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Former California state Senator Fran Pavley, a pioneer in climate change legislation, talks about the potential rollback of federal standards for greenhouse gas emissions.

President Donald Trump started the process Wednesday of rolling back federal rules designed to limit emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from automobiles, taking aim at air pollution and climate change rules that originated in California.

Already at odds with California leaders over immigration and health insurance, Trump said his administration would launch a formal review of greenhouse gas standards that were launched in California and then adopted nationwide in 2009 by former President Barack Obama. Automakers had complained to Trump that the regulations were costly, and the president signaled the review would result in less stringent standards.

“We are going to ensure that any regulations we have protect and defend your jobs, your factories, we’re going to be fair,” Trump told autoworkers at a rally in Ypsilanti, Mich. He didn’t mention California or its role in initiating the greenhouse gas rules. His order affects cars made in the model years 2022 through 2025.

Trump’s announcement sparked an outcry in California, where officials said they would fight to maintain strict tailpipe emission rules. Gov. Jerry Brown, in a letter to U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, called the president’s decision to review the federal standards “an unconscionable gift to polluters.”

Former Democratic state Sen. Fran Pavley, who authored the bill that started California’s effort to lower greenhouse gas emissions, said she was disappointed that the regulations, which have resulted in improvements to fuel mileage, might unravel. “All these cars are better because of these laws,” she said. “They save motorists money at the pump, and they’re less polluting.”

Trump’s move won’t necessarily trigger a showdown with California. He didn’t specifically address a previous threat, raised by Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, that the administration might revisit California’s right to impose its own tougher standards on greenhouse gas emissions.

That suggests California, and a dozen states that have the authority to follow California’s lead, could chart a separate course from the rest of the country and stick with stricter rules, according to officials with the California Air Resources Board. The mix of cars sold in California would be altered dramatically as a result.

Still, conflict with Washington is a strong possibility. Because of gray areas in federal law, the Trump administration could determine that California would have to fall in line with federal standards, said Richard Frank, an environmental law professor at UC Davis. California surely would challenge that in court. “It’s likely going to precipitate litigation,” Frank said.

Environmental law expert Deborah Sivas at Stanford University agreed: “There’s no way California’s going to roll over on this.”

Anticipating Trump’s move, the state intervened this week in a lawsuit filed by automakers trying to undermine the existing federal greenhouse gas standards. The state argued in court papers that “any weakening or delay of the national standards will result in increased harms to our natural resources, our economy, and our people.”

California took the lead on cars and climate change in 2002, when former Gov. Gray Davis signed Pavley’s AB 1493, which called for a significant decrease in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. The law survived a legal challenge by the auto industry. But the rules couldn’t take effect without a waiver from the federal government.

The Clean Air Act of 1970 says air pollution standards are set by the federal government. But the law, recognizing California’s severe pollution problems, gives California the right to set tougher standards within its borders, if it gets a waiver from the EPA. Also, it allows other states to adopt California’s rules as their own. The feds have granted dozens of waivers over the years.

Former President George W. Bush refused to grant California the waiver it requested on greenhouse gases, the only time a waiver has been denied. Obama reversed that decision shortly after taking office – and went further. He made the California rules the law of the land, though the regulations were to be phased in more slowly than California’s law had called for.

Earlier air pollution rules imposed by California to reduce smog-forming particles and other pollutants generally required automakers to install special gadgets on cars sold in the state. But reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases requires a different approach; Sivas said the only practical way to reduce those emissions is by ramping up fuel mileage standards.

Under a complicated settlement with the auto industry announced by Obama in 2009, average vehicle mileage standards were raised gradually for the first few years, she said. But between now and 2025, fuel mileage – meaning the average for a fleet produced by one carmaker – is supposed to increase from 36 miles per gallon to 54 mpg.

“It’s like a hill, it’s going to keep getting steeper,” said Karl Brauer, an auto industry analyst with Kelley Blue Book.

The rules already are locked in for model years 2017 through 2022; Trump’s action will result in a review of the rules for 2022 through 2025.

If California continues to impose standards that exceed the nation’s, Sivas and Hwang said, automakers wouldn’t have to make two sets of cars to comply with each set of regulations. Rather, they would need to dramatically change the mix of cars they sell in different states to achieve fuel mileage results that comply with the greenhouse gas rules. Carmakers would have to sell a lot more high-mileage vehicles in California than in states that adhere to the national standards.

Roland Hwang, director of energy and transportation at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said Brown and Mary Nichols, the chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, will be influential in determining the outcome of the controversy. Nichols has suggested that CARB is willing to go along with tweaks to the greenhouse gas standards, but not wholesale revisions.

“California’s a key player here, no doubt about it,” Hwang said. “The pathway to weakening the standards – that path goes through California.”

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler

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