The current EPA administration has repeatedly mischaracterized California’s authority and role when it comes to vehicle emissions standards—here is what that really means for California and the country writ large.
For the current Administration, “One National Program” means “One WEAKER Program”
On Tuesday of this week, Scott Pruitt responded to questions from Senators Tom Carper (D-DE) and Ed Markey (D-MA) regarding vehicle emissions standards, declaring to a Senate Committee Hearing on EPA Oversight that “a national program is essential.” Yet in December, he declared that part of the ongoing midterm review of those standards could be revoking California’s waiver to maintain the current standards through 2025.
Similarly, last Thursday Assistant EPA Administrator Bill Wehrum, who leads the Office of Air and Radiation in charge of setting vehicle emissions standards maintained that “[t]he overarching goal of [ongoing conversations with California] is to maintain or retain one national program,” yet noted in the same line of questioning that the talks were held “with the intention and the goal of trying to achieve agreement as to whether changes should be made to the current (federal) standards.”
Just a heads-up to the EPA: California already determined that the current standards remain appropriate. And for that matter, the previous administration did so as well. States who follow California’s program agree, which is why many have already intervened against any weakening. So, if the current Administration wishes to make any changes to the program, it is they who are tampering with “One National Program.” So much for that “essential” element, I guess!
Why does California get to set its own standards?
California was the first area of the country to encounter the problem of automotive pollution, and they were also the first region to take action. Yet in doing so they encountered not just resistance by the auto industry towards regulation of those emissions, but denial by the industry such emissions were even a problem, and collusion by manufacturers to curtail the invention and adoption of emissions control devices, which I detailed in our report Time for a U-turn.
Fighting California’s standards is just one event in the timeline of automakers’ resistance to regulations. Learn more.
When Congress finally acted to regulate emissions from vehicles, they carved out an exemption for California to set its own, stronger emissions standards, recognizing its past leadership on the issue—an action which, again, the auto industry fought. In the development of the Clean Air Act, this exemption was maintained, and in amendments to the Act this provision was expanded so that not only could California request a waiver to set its own standards stronger than those set by the federal government, but any other state could adopt California’s stronger standards.
Today, 12 other states and the District of Columbia have adopted California’s passenger vehicle emissions standards—altogether, 1/3 of the market for passenger cars and trucks has committed to California’s standards.
The need for this leadership is critical—despite continued progress on mobile source emissions, California continues to be home to significant air quality issues, and they are at the front line of the fight against climate change, having already been affected by an extended wildfire season and severe drought amplified by global warming.
Walking back from strong standards cedes U.S. leadership
Administrator Pruitt mistakenly characterized California’s leadership as some sort of authoritarian rule (“Federalism doesn’t mean that one state can dictate to the rest of the country.”), when the state is simply protecting its inhabitants. It also misses the point of setting a high bar for the country as a whole.
When the current EPA administration talks about changing the standards already finalized by California and the previous administration, it does so at the peril of investment in innovation in the United States. The European Union is moving forward with stronger standards, regardless of what happens in the U.S. Some countries are even looking past internal combustion engines altogether. China, too, is setting both strong emissions targets and its own zero emission vehicles goals.
When other countries set these strong targets, the U.S. is ceding its leadership to those regions, and with it, a greener economic future. Ford, for example, is betting heavily on an electrified future…in China. Those are investments in next-generation vehicles that are being built abroad instead of North America. Volkswagen, General Motors, and others are all following suit. Automotive suppliers will move to those more advanced markets, too.
Manufacturers can meet the 2025 standards that were affirmed last year—California knows it, and frankly so do the auto companies. If the administration is serious about a “data-driven” mid-term review, 1) we already had one of those and 2) we know it comes down on the side of strong standards. If instead the administration undermines the data with political hullabaloo, California and the states that have already finalized the adoption of the current 2025 standards may end up being the backstop the rest of the country needs to ensure we don’t lose out on the jobs, fuel savings, and emissions reductions that strong standards provide.
We have One National Program now—if the EPA chooses to undo that by weakening the federal standards, it is Administrator Pruitt who will be responsible for unraveling the cost-effective, unified program currently protecting consumers and the public and in place today in large part due to strong state leadership.