Why UCS Is Suing Trump Over Car Standards

November 22, 2019 | 1:19 pm
Public domain
Ken Kimmell
Former President

On September 27, the Trump administration issued a new rule that purports to take away the right of California and thirteen other states to cut carbon dioxide emissions from cars and light duty trucks and require increasing percentages of new car sales to be electric vehicles or other zero emitting technology.

Today, the Union of Concerned Scientists filed suit against the Trump administration for this action. UCS does not typically file lawsuits that focus on the legal authority of states and the federal government. But this suit is about much more than that.

This is about cutting carbon pollution from cars and trucks

At first glance, the controversy between the administration and California and thirteen other states would appear to be about whether greenhouse gas pollution standards are the exclusive province of the federal government or are a shared responsibility. But this is about much more. Taking away the rights of states to set their own standards is the first of a one-two punch. The second punch, which is expected shortly, is lowering the current standards themselves. The standards in place now, which were adopted by both the states and the federal government, would raise overall fuel economy to 37 miles per gallon by 2025, save consumers $50 billion in gasoline costs in 2030, and cut carbon dioxide pollution by 470 million metric tons by 2030. The Trump administration has proposed to weaken the standards so 2025 cars achieve the same efficiency as they will in 2020, costing consumers billions in extra fuel costs and causing 2.2 billion additional tons of carbon pollution in 2040.

So this lawsuit is not just about who decides what the standards are, it is about what the standards should be.

This is about the future of transportation and technology innovation

The regulations issued by the states are intended not only to lower carbon pollution from conventional gasoline powered vehicles but also to accelerate the transition to electric vehicles through a zero emission vehicle (ZEV) program. This state-based clean car program is wholly in line with a worldwide move to adopt new, cleaner technologies for our transportation system. In contrast, the proposed Trump rollback is intended to freeze in place current technology.

For the past sixty years, both the federal government and California have played key roles in spurring technology innovation in cars, buses and trucks. It started back in the 1960s, when California’s concern with pollution in the Los Angeles area led it to adopt standards to lower carbon monoxide from tailpipes, standard that the federal government ultimately adopted and expanded upon when it passed the national Clean Air Act. It continued in the 1970s through 1990s when California and the federal government worked together to get lead out of gasoline, saving countless lives. It continued in the 1990s when California issued the first zero emission vehicles (ZEV) mandates to spur electric cars. And it was on full display in 2012, when California and the federal government, with the backing of the auto industry, agreed to ambitious standards to cut tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases for cars and light duty trucks.

The partnership between California and the federal government on automobile standards has been an unqualified success, with California playing a critical role in spurring technological development and those technologies deployed nationally through federal action modeled on California’s initial standards. Thus, preserving that authority is not just about California continuing to have a say—it is about continuing to use government as a tool for technology innovation.

This is about containing executive branch power

A singular—and highly dangerous—aspect of the Trump administration is its unyielding drive to arrogate all powers to itself and rout all who stand in the way. We see this in the firing and smearing of diplomats who were perceived as obstacles to a nefarious deal with Ukraine; the sacking of independent scientists who advise the EPA on public health standards; a bogus antitrust investigation into car companies who have sided with California on car standards; and many other examples.

So too here: by taking away the rights of CA and thirteen other states, President Trump is removing an obstacle to the goal—ensuring that tomorrow’s cars run on gasoline only—and use a lot of it.

In recent times states have gone well beyond the federal government in offering greater protections to their residents. As this administration seeks to appropriate all power unto itself and weaken those protections, it is essential to retain state authority as a bulwark. This lawsuit heads in that direction.

The case is winnable

Finally, UCS is bringing this suit because it can win. In 2007, the US Supreme Court ruled that the federal Clean Air Act gives the EPA the authority to address greenhouse gases, and the standards that California and the other states issued come directly from the Clean Air Act. The EPA explicitly granted CA permission for these standards, two courts have already ruled that California and other states have the right to set them, and Congress has recognized this authority repeatedly.

The Trump administration’s argument to the contrary is flimsy. It claims that taking away the authority of the states is needed so that there is one national standard. But there is one national standard right now, agreed to by EPA, NHTSA, California and thirteen other states. If there is any practical problem posed by two different standards, it is the Trump administration that is causing it by departing from what was agreed to and is working well.

The Trump administration also relies heavily on a single sentence of a 1973 law which gives the National Highway Traffic and Safety (NHTSA) the authority to set overall fuel economy standards. But that law was intended to address the Arab Oil embargo, not global climate change, and many provisions in that law show that NHTSA’s standards are subordinate to those issued by EPA or CA under the Clean Air Act, not the other way around.

Once again, the Trump administration reaches into the past (a 1973 law) to prevent progress in the future. Our lawsuit seeks to stop this atavism dead in its tracks.