Setting up a likely legal fight with California, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Monday it will scrap Obama-era rules governing fuel efficiency and greenhouse gases emitted by cars.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, in announcing his long-awaited decision on automobile standards, signaled he might challenge California's long-established authority to set stricter standards than the U.S. government on air pollution. He said the federal government can't let one state "dictate standards for the rest of the country. EPA will set a national standard for greenhouse gas emissions that allows auto manufacturers to make cars that people both want and can afford."
He added that California's legal authority, known as a waiver, "is still being reexamined by EPA." The waiver applies not only to California but several other states that have followed California's lead.
Gov. Jerry Brown, in response to the EPA announcement, said: "This cynical and meretricious abuse of power will poison our air and jeopardize the health of all Americans.” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said he's reviewing Pruitt's announcement and is "ready to file suit."
Pruitt's actions don't affects cars and trucks currently on the road, but abandon tough rules scheduled to take effect starting in 2022.
During Barack Obama's presidency, the U.S. government and California struck a deal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks by about one-third for new cars sold from 2022 to 2025. Those same rules had the effect of increasing fuel efficiency, also by about one third, to an average of 54.5 miles per gallon for cars and light trucks sold in 2025. California could have insisted on even tougher rules for cars sold in the state because of its legal special authority — a "waiver" granted to California decades ago because of its bad air problems.
But as soon as President Donald Trump was elected, automakers began lobbying the White House and Congress to unravel the Obama-California agreement, arguing the regulations were too ambitious in an era of low gas prices and consumer preference for SUVs.
Last spring, Trump announced he was ordering a fresh examination of the Obama regulations. That teed up a year-long evaluation that culminated in Monday's announcement. Although Pruitt said the Obama rules must go, he added he hasn't yet finalized a new set of rules.
California has refused to budge from the standards put in place by Obama. What happens next will depend in large part on whether the EPA will continue to honor California's "waiver" and its ability to enforce stricter rules.
If Pruitt leaves California's legal authority in place, that could put automakers in a bind. They likely would have to manufacture cars to two sets of standards: one for much of the nation, and a stricter standard for cars sold in California and other states that have adopted California's rules. Those states combined make up about one third of the car-buying population.
That's a scenario that carmakers long have sought to avoid.
Gloria Bergquist, vice president of communications for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said automakers are hopeful that California will participate in the upcoming rule-making process and eventually reach agreement with the EPA.
"We would hope that California would want to maximize greenhouse gas emissions reductions" by being part of a standard enforced nationally, instead of limited to California and a dozen other states, she said.
Talks between the EPA and California over the past several months did not produce agreement on a national standard, but those meetings could have been a "door opening" for further discussions, she said.
But for now California doesn't appear to be in the mood for cordial talks. Pruitt's decision "takes the U.S. auto industry backward, and we will vigorously defend the existing clean vehicle standards and fight to preserve one national clean vehicle program," said Chairwoman Mary Nichols of the California Air Resources Board. "This is not a technical assessment. It is a move to demolish the nation's clean car program."
If the nation ends up with two emissions standards, the automakers could live with it, but not enthusiastically, Bergquist said. "We would prefer not to. It would not be ideal. It would limit options for consumers in California," she said.