The Trump administration is picking a new fight with California, this time over global warming and emissions standards for cars.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt is expected this week to declare that having the nation’s auto fleet meet an average 54.5 mpg standard by 2025 is too strict, two people familiar with the matter confirmed to The Hill.
The decision could have huge ramifications for California, which negotiated the target with the Obama administration in 2011 after winning a waiver from the Clean Air Act to impose its own in-state fuel economy standards.
If Pruitt decides the standard is too high, the EPA is likely to lower the target and could even seek to eliminate California’s waiver.
In California, the fight is seen as just the latest attack on a state that prides itself as ground zero for resistance to President Trump ever since Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton defeated Trump there by more than 4 million votes.
“The Trump administration certainly is looking for every opportunity to stick to it California,” Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) told The Hill Wednesday.
California is seeking to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 40 percent by 2030, a goal that would be in jeopardy if it cannot hold cars to a high fuel standard.
“You’re really attacking California’s environmental identity,” said Ann Carlson, a professor of environmental law at the UCLA.
California in the 20th century witnessed firsthand the negative effects of air pollution through crippling smog. High vehicle emissions paired with the state’s unique geography consistently rank it atop the list of states with the worst air quality.
Since the administration announced formally in August that the EPA was considering rewriting the rule for cars and light trucks made between 2021 and 2025, California representatives have taken a wait-and-see approach. But in the lead up to the decision’s deadline on Sunday, Golden State representatives are starting to take a combative stance.
“We are troubled about the rumors that the EPA has found the standards to be too aggressive and that they need to be weakened,” said Stanley Young, spokesman for the California Air Resources Board, the state agency responsible for emissions rules. “We feel strongly that weakening the program will waste fuel, increase emissions, and cost consumers more money.”
The fight over emission standards would be just the latest battle between Trump and California, where the president’s policies on immigration in particular have prompted Attorney General Jeff Sessions to warn that there is “no secession” from the United States.
On Monday night, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s decision to add a question about legal residence to the 2020 census sparked new talk of a lawsuit from California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D), who has already launched dozens of legal challenges against the administration.
Becerra said California is prepared to sue if the EPA moves to weaken the vehicle emissions standards.
“We are going to do everything that can been done to defend these standards,” Becerra told Reuters Tuesday. “So far, when we have been challenged on environmental standards we have had a good record in court. We haven’t lost a case.”
Pruitt has taken a combative approach, arguing the Obama administration gave California too much say in the standards.
“California is not the arbiter of these issues,” Pruitt told Bloomberg News this month, adding that it “shouldn’t and can’t dictate to the rest of the country what these levels are going to be.”
If California were allowed to target a higher fuel efficiency standard than the rest of the country, it would create real problems for automakers that would prefer one national standard.
It’s also likely that other states would follow California’s lead.
Twelve states currently follow California’s rules on greenhouse gases from cars. Together, the bloc amounts for about a third of the nation’s car market.
Companies don’t want to be left with the choice of either making different vehicles for different states or letting California set the de facto national rules.
“That might mean that certain vehicles can’t be sold in California,” said Gloria Bergquist, spokeswoman for the Auto Alliance.
Bergquist argued that retaining one standard for the whole country is “better for everyone.”
Andrew Linhardt, the Sierra Club’s deputy director for clean transportation, said the EPA’s biggest challenge in arguing to change the fuel efficiency standards will be in showing that doing so is legal.
The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to grant California a waiver if the state has “compelling and extraordinary circumstances,” which the Obama administration said it does. A change of course would require the EPA to demonstrate that the circumstances are no longer there.
“[California] has always said they’d be willing to look at new data, but that data doesn’t exist and EPA knows that,” Linhardt said. “Again they would have to directly contradict previously findings that they did less than two years ago. The automakers had huge amounts of input into that. It’s hard for me to foresee where that technical data would be coming from.”
Carlson expects California to sue if the EPA revokes its waiver, and the case is likely to get appealed all the way to the Supreme Court.
“The really important substantive question is, does California have ‘compelling and extraordinary circumstances’ to issue standards that are more stringent than the federal government’s,” she said.
Becerra said the law is on California’s side.
“Threats are par for the course for California in this administration,” he told reporters last month. “At the end of the day, they can threaten. But what they can do under the law is something else.”