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21st of October 2018

Automotive



California Is Fighting the Trump Administration on Car Emissions

The slow motion legal showdown between the feds, the state of California, and its climate-minded allies is on.

While President Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency works to roll back clean car regulations, California’s Air Resources Board convened late last week to pass a series of measures that confirm its determination to reduce vehicle emissions in the state, and its willingness to lead the fight—no matter what the federal government says. Or the cost of its legal bills.

“They’re definitely not backing down,” says Ethan Elkind, the director of climate program at the Center for Law Energy and the Environment at UC Berkeley. “They’re tightening the screws.”

The major measures extend the state’s low carbon fuel standard by a decade, out to 2030, and require refineries and fuel importers to reduce the carbon intensity of their fuels. They provide financial incentives for developers who build fast-charging electric vehicle charging stations. They move the state closer toward requiring all bus fleets to run on electricity or hydrogen by the year 2040. And most critically: CARB clarified the requirement that all automakers that sell in California must meet the state’s vehicle emissions standards.

If that measure had come two years ago, it might not have been a big deal. Since 2012, California and the feds have agreed to match their standards. If cars and light-duty trucks were good enough for the feds, state regulators said, they were good enough for the Golden State.

But in August, the Environmental Protection Agency announced its intent to reverse course on Obama-era vehicle emissions and fuel economy standards. Instead of slowly ratcheting up rules that would force automakers to hit fleetwide an average fuel economy standard of around 54 miles per gallon by 2024, the new standards would freeze at 2021 levels. (For convoluted reasons, that 54 mark equates to a real world 36 mpg.) And the administration said it would revoke California’s special permission to set its own vehicle standards, a right that dates back to when Congress amended the Clean Air Act in 1970.

In pulling out of the truce, the feds are arguing that relaxing the standards will save American car buyers money, about $2,000 per new vehicle. And in a paper released last week, the National Highway Safety Administration found that tailpipe emissions will have so little effect on a warming globe after 2020 that they’re not worth pursuing, anyway. “What they are saying is: ‘We are going to hell anyhow, what difference does it make if we go a little faster?’” David Pettit, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told WIRED.

The Environmental Protection Agency is scheduled to continue to accept public comments on its proposal to freeze emissions standards until the end of this month. Expect the actual rulemaking to take another few weeks or months. Then will come the lawsuits.

No one thought California would back down. Back in May, the state sued the EPA, saying the agency acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” when it decided to review the Obama-era fuel emissions policy. Sixteen other states joined the lawsuit. Transportation is the source of 28 percent of those emissions in California, and CARB estimates that freezing the standards, as the federal government would like to do, would release 12 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions in the state by 2030.

Automakers, meanwhile, are caught in the middle. Following both California and federal standards would be incredibly complicated; they might have to offer some fuel efficient features, electric models, or special pricing in some states, and not in others. Or they could just shrug their shoulders and let a single state's regulations drive their fleetwide production schedules. Almost worse than that, though, is the prospect of regulatory uncertainty, of emissions standards and rules changing so fast that manufacturers can’t plan for the decade ahead. Prior to the CARB vote last week, the Global Automakers Association warned California that the move would escalate its fight with the federal government—and make their lives harder.

The measures “could lock the state into a position that would make further negotiation with the federal Administration impossible,” it wrote in a comment to the agency. Mary Nichols, California's chief air regulator, said last month that her federal counterparts have reached out, with the intent of finding a compromise. But clearly, the parties aren't there yet.

This all adds up to uncertainty for cars, and particularly for electric ones. “If the Trump administration gets away with revoking the California waiver that allows the state to set its own standards, that could have a significant impact on the advancement of the electric vehicle market,” says Jeremy Michalek, a mechanical engineer who studies public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. The move could take the pressure off automakers scrambling to build enough EVs to hit fleetwide fuel economy targets by the middle of the next decade. Take your foot off the gas pedal now, and you might get stuck with gas for decades.

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