Trump officials defend plan to revoke Calif. waiver

Source: By Timothy Cama, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, September 19, 2019

Senior Trump administration officials today defended their decision to block California’s plans to enforce greenhouse gas emissions standards for cars, saying they run afoul of the law and would stop the benefits that rolling back federal car rules would bring.

Dubbing their decision the “One National Program Rule,” the leaders of the Department of Transportation and EPA said California — which is striving to enforce tougher emissions limits for cars sold within its borders and those of 13 states that choose to follow its rules — stands in the way of nationwide consistency for car manufacturers and consumers.

At a news conference this morning at EPA headquarters, accompanied by representatives of supportive groups, EPA head Andrew Wheeler and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced they will seek to stop California from enforcing its emissions rules and its mandate that automakers sell certain numbers of zero-emission vehicles, or ZEVs, in the affected states. It does not affect other California programs that require EPA waivers, like its low-emissions vehicle mandate.

The decision, first announced yesterday by President Trump via tweet, immediately escalates an ongoing feud with California leaders, who have already pledged to sue the administration over its action (Greenwire, Sept. 18).

It also presages the agencies’ coming action to roll back federal fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions standards, which California threatened to complicate. The Trump administration proposed the rollback, dubbed the Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient Vehicles rule, last year, saying it wanted to freeze standards in 2021 and cancel the planned increases in stringency through 2026.

Chao and Wheeler accused California of trying to set national car standards, which is something only the federal government can do. California, the 13 other states and Washington, D.C., make up more than 40% of the national vehicle market, so they have considerable sway over how cars are made.

“No state has the authority to opt out of the nation’s rules, and no state has a right to impose its policies on everybody else in our whole country. To do otherwise harms consumers and damages the American economy,” Chao said.

“We embrace federalism and the role of states. But federalism does not mean that one state can dictate standards for the entire country,” said Wheeler.

He said eliminating California’s power to set its rules “will provide much-needed certainty to the automotive industry, and it sets the stage for President Trump’s ultimate objective: a final SAFE rule that will save lives and strengthen the economy by reducing the price of new vehicles and helping more Americans purchase newer, cleaner and safer cars and trucks.”

Wheeler said the rollback “is good for public safety, good for the economy and good for the environment,” citing disputed findings and arguments, such as that it would increase sales of new vehicles, getting cleaner and safer cars on the road faster.

Neither Chao nor Wheeler repeated Trump’s claims that he has made in numerous recent political rallies that new cars are too lightweight to be safe and that the new rule would make them heavier and safer.

Hurdles ahead

California officials, led by Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D) and Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), have already pledged to fight Trump’s action in court (E&E News PM, Sept. 18).

Congressional Democrats are also plotting strategies to fight the administration’s action against California (E&E Daily, Sept. 19).

Trump and California officials have clashed repeatedly over matters ranging from health care to immigration. Just last night, Trump said EPA would punish San Francisco, alleging that its homeless population is violating water pollution rules (see related story).

Trump has been particularly angry at California since the July announcement that four automakers agreed with state regulators to follow stronger emissions rules than what EPA and DOT will make final soon. The federal agencies told California the deal is illegal, and the Department of Justice is investigating it for potential violations of antitrust law.

Environmental groups are expected to join the Golden State in suing over the revocation.

Groups representing automakers have generally been in favor of relaxing the Obama administration standards, but not to the degree the Trump administration proposed. They have also tried to avoid protracted litigation over the matter, or to have a divided vehicle market.

Gloria Bergquist, spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, attended today’s event but said it was not necessarily a sign of support.

“We are waiting to see what the final rule looks like and look at all of this together about where we stand,” she told E&E News, referring to the final rollback action.

“We have seen in the news that California seems to be suggesting that they’re going to be pursuing litigation,” she said. “So now this is what we didn’t want to happen, this uncertainty. But now we’re here, so we’re eager to have this all resolved.”

Officials had proposed revoking California’s waiver as part of the larger rollback. But finalizing the issues separately reflects a desire to have the courts consider them as two different actions.

“This rule will be separable, will be able to challenged in court on its own if California so chooses. And we can accelerate the timetable for getting a definitive final judgment from the courts,” said Steven Bradbury, DOT’s deputy secretary and general counsel.

“Once we get those final determinations in court on these focused legal issues, we’ll get that certainty for the auto sector and for the entire nation.”

California and its allies have argued that the Clean Air Act, under which the Obama administration granted California’s waiver in 2013, does not give EPA authority to revoke a waiver.

But EPA General Counsel Matt Leopold said that interpretation is wrong and the courts will agree.

“We have inherent authority to revisit our prior decisions, particularly if they violate the law,” he said.

The Trump administration’s action relies in part on the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, the law that gives DOT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration the power to regulate fuel efficiency. It also prevents states from enforcing their own fuel efficiency standards.

“EPCA expressly provides that the federal government regulates fuel economy, not the states. Since there’s a direct, scientific link between a car’s greenhouse gas emissions and its fuel economy, DOT is determining that EPCA preempts state GHG and zero-emission vehicle programs,” Wheeler said.

Furthermore, EPA is officially determining that California lacks the “compelling and extraordinary conditions” that are required under the Clean Air Act for a waiver, he said.

“California cars have no closer link to California climate impacts than do cars on the road in Japan or anywhere else in the world. And California’s climate impacts are not extraordinarily distinct from those in other states,” Wheeler explained.

Conservative activists, meanwhile, are squarely in Trump’s corner.

“While there are some who would rather have those decisions made by bureaucrats in California, we believe that workers, consumers and families can and should be trusted to make decisions that affect their lives,” said Tom Pyle, president of the American Energy Alliance.

“The administration’s efforts to reform this ill-conceived and wickedly regressive mandate will save consumers money, preserve their choices, and ensure that the federal government, and not California, sets national fuel efficiency policy,” he said.