Reagan fought for California’s right to require tough fuel standards. Trump might try to reverse it.

Source: By Brady Dennis, Washington Post • Posted: Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Vehicles sit in rush-hour traffic at the interchange between the Interstate 405 and 10 freeways in this aerial photograph taken over Los Angeles. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg News

The Trump administration has drafted a plan to freeze fuel-efficiency standards for the nation’s cars and light trucks, reversing the Obama-era push for cleaner vehicles and marking one of President Trump’s most significant regulatory rollbacks to date.

As part of the far-reaching proposal expected to be released this week, the White House will also attempt to revoke California’s ability to set stricter tailpipe standards than those of the federal government. The move would set up an intense legal fight against California — and more than a dozen other states and the District of Columbia — that have adopted its standards and upend a policy that lawmakers of both parties have largely supported over the past half-century.

Although California officials and the Trump administration have clashed repeatedly over environmental policies, the state’s unique ability to write its own emissions standards has historically not been a political lightning rod. That may be about to change.

First, a little history. Smog in Los Angeles had become crippling at times throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s. As scientists focused on motor vehicle exhausts as a key culprit of air pollution, state officials sprung into action, developing the nation’s first vehicle emissions standards in 1966. The following year, the state’s new Republican governor, Ronald Reagan, established the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to undertake a statewide effort to address widespread air pollution.

Around the same time as it crafted clean air legislation for the country, Congress granted California special status, saying the state could request a “waiver” to require stricter tailpipe standards if it provided a compelling reason such regulations were needed. The auto industry, then as now, expressed concern over the idea of having to meet different standards in different states, but California eventually prevailed.

“It was very controversial, and it was very close,” David Vogel, a professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley, who has written about the state’s environmental history, said of the 1967 legislation that first gave the state its waiver ability. “But every California legislator in Washington uniformly supported the waiver request. Every official in the state, from Reagan on down, wanted California to be able to address its very bad pollution.”

Congress has repeatedly reaffirmed California’s right to request its waiver, and in 1977 said other states could adopt the state’s stringent car emissions standards. Along the way, emissions control strategies first adopted by California — catalytic converters, nitrous oxide regulations and “check engine” systems, to name a few — have become standard across the country.

“It’s had a transformational impact,” said Jody Freeman, an expert in environmental law and a professor at Harvard Law School. “It was directly responsible for many advancements that make cars better, stronger and more efficient.”

Over the decades, the Environmental Protection Agency has repeatedly approved waivers for California under the Clean Air Act, with the exception of late 2007, when the agency during the Bush administration denied the state a waiver for its tailpipe standards on the grounds that capping carbon dioxide emissions did not address a specific air pollution problem for California. California has applied for and received more than 130 waivers over the past 50 years, according to CARB.

California, along with other states, challenged the denial in court. In July 2009, after President Barack Obama took office, the EPA granted the state its waiver. That same year, the Obama administration reached a deal with California and the auto industry, setting the first carbon limits on tailpipe emissions and maintaining nationwide fuel economy standards.

Smog covers the skyline on May 21, 2003 in Los Angeles. Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

But with the arrival of the Trump administration, California has faced its most serious opposition in years to its autonomy.

“California is not the arbiter of these issues,” then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt told Bloomberg TV this spring, foreshadowing the likely fight to come. While California sets state limits on greenhouse gas emissions, he added, “that shouldn’t and can’t dictate to the rest of the country what these levels are going to be.”

Should the Trump administration’s attempt to revoke California’s ability to set stricter emissions requirements succeed, state officials including the governor and attorney general have vowed to lead a fierce legal battle.

That fight would likely center, in part, on a 1975 energy law that gave the Department of Transportation authority to set fuel economy standards. Two federal district courts in 2007 rejected the argument that the 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act prohibits California from setting its own tailpipe standards, but the law remains unsettled on the matter.

In separate cases in Vermont and California, where two different Chrysler dealers had challenged California’s emissions limits, judges concluded that the state was allowed to impose its own standards, given the fact that it had received a waiver from EPA. “Congress has consistently acknowledged interplay and overlap between emissions reductions regulations and fuel economic regulations, and could not have intended that an EPA-approved emissions reduction regulation did not have the force of a federal regulation,” Judge William K. Sessions III wrote in Green Mountain Chrysler Plymouth Dodge v. Crombie.

If the Trump administration decides to launch a “wholesale assault” on California’s waiver ability, Vogel said, a resolution probably won’t come anytime soon.

“This will be bound up in the courts,” he said. “This will take forever.”

Freeman said such a drawn-out legal battle is avoidable and that it’s possible for the federal government to craft a deal with California that gives automakers flexibility in meeting fuel efficiency requirements while maintaining one national standard. But blowing up that balance, she said, probably will benefit no one — particularly consumers.

“What this does at a minimum is plunge the auto industry into a prolonged legal battle and years of regulatory uncertainty,” she said, “which is the one thing they say they don’t want.”

Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.