California moves to insulate itself from clean cars rollback

Source: Debra Kahn, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, October 1, 2018

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — State regulators voted today to change California standards for vehicular tailpipe emissions in preparation for the Trump administration weakening federal rules.

The California Air Resources Board’s move is aimed at preserving its authority to continue enforcing joint state-federal greenhouse gas standards for cars that the Trump administration is preparing to undo on the federal side.

“Today’s proposal is intended to serve as a backstop and preserve the emissions benefits of California’s standards,” CARB Chairwoman Mary Nichols said, while signaling the state is still open to a compromise with the federal government.

“We would prefer this to be a national program just as everybody else would, and we are not searching for an opportunity to test our strength,” she said. “Despite our convictions that we’re right legally and factually and morally, we would also like to find a way to get this all resolved.”

The rule change at CARB would maintain California’s authority to enforce the Obama-era rules through 2025 by specifying that automakers can still submit one emissions test for both state and federal compliance, so long as the federal standards remain unchanged. If the federal standards do change, manufacturers would have to comply with California’s rules separately (Climatewire, Sept. 24).

EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last month outlined a series of options for the Obama-era car rules. The administration’s preferred option was freezing fuel economy standards at 2020 levels through 2026, rather than increasing their stringency each year as President Obama had envisioned.

The Trump administration held public hearings earlier this week on its proposal and got a chilly reception from automakers in Dearborn, Mich. (Greenwire, Sept. 25).

Automakers, however, are also objecting to California’s proposal to decouple its rules. In comments filed Monday, the Association of Global Automakers and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers argued California should wait to see whether it can reach a compromise on one national program, and if it does go ahead, it would need to adjust its own clean-car regulations as well as seek a waiver from the federal government to implement the amendment.

“Global Automakers believes ARB should first work cooperatively with the federal agencies to find the right national solution,” said Julia Rege, the group’s director of environment and energy.

Honda, a member of Global Automakers, spoke separately to urge CARB to adopt a voluntary program that automakers could comply with alongside the federal program.

“We believe the adoption of these amendments is premature and unhelpful while negotiations are underway,” said Robert Bienenfeld, assistant vice president of environment and energy strategy at American Honda Motor Co. Inc.

Board members were not sympathetic to their arguments. “Your telling us to stand down, to wait and see, is a ridiculous request,” said CARB board member Hector De La Torre. “You triggered it, and now we have to follow through with it.”

The administration’s proposal also seeks comment on whether to withdraw the Clean Air Act waiver that EPA granted California in 2013 to enforce its own rules, including a separate rule for zero-emission vehicles, on the grounds they are pre-empted by federal fuel economy rules. Twelve other states have adopted California’s rules, representing about 40 percent of the country’s auto market.

“This action is also contrary both to the law and to the facts,” Nichols said, vowing to “vigorously defend” the state’s authority, “including in court, if need be.” California, 16 other states and the District of Columbia have already sued over the administration’s bid to loosen the clean car standards (E&E News PM, May 1).

Several of the states that have followed California’s lead, including Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Vermont and Washington, also testified in Sacramento in favor of adopting the rule. The states would have to pass rules in their own agencies echoing California’s move.

“A deal is a deal until one side breaks its faith,” said Rob Klee, commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “EPA is certainly signaling that and their intent to abandon this partnership.”

Nichols said agency staff was still open to finding a compromise and is sending letters to the automakers asking for data on how they were trying to comply with the rules, “so we’re in a position to see for ourselves if there is a real problem here and where the flexibilities could be found.”

But she said the lack of substantive discussions with EPA and NHTSA so far did not augur well for any further negotiations after the public comment period on the federal proposal ends Oct. 26.

“There’s the possibility that California could be involved, although again, despite their stated willingness to work with California, we remain in this very awkward situation where, at least as far as the agencies are concerned, we’re just a stakeholder like any other stakeholder,” she said. “They do not see us as a partner or collaborator in this process.”