Discover more from The California Energy Transition
California’s Energy Transition from Oil State to Fossil Free: Introduction Part Four—Auto Emissions
Part four of the introduction discusses California’s recent battle with the Trump administration over the regulation of auto emissions.
In justifying the expedited transition to ZEVs under Executive Order N 79-20, Newsom identified auto emissions as a chief cause of both local and global environmental and health problems. He ordered that by 2035, all new passenger cars and trucks sold in the state must be ZEVs and that by 2045, all medium- and heavy-duty vehicles sold in the state would be ZEVs where feasible. The same would apply to drayage trucks, which carry freight from ports, off-road vehicles, and equipment by 2035. “This is the most impactful step our state can take to fight climate change,” Newsom said in a statement. “For too many decades, we have allowed cars to pollute the air that our children and families breathe. Californians shouldn’t have to worry if our cars are giving our kids asthma. Our cars shouldn’t make wildfires worse—and create more days filled with smoky air. Cars shouldn’t melt glaciers or raise sea levels threatening our cherished beaches and coastlines.”
The regulation of auto emissions, which are critical to the state’s policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, also came under challenge during the Trump administration. In 1970, the Clean Air Act established federal regulation of motor vehicle emissions that preempts state regulation. California, however, had set its own emission standards since the 1960s, and the act allowed the state to continue to set its own emissions standards that exceed federal standards. To do so, the state must request a waiver from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the EPA must grant the waiver if California can establish that it has “compelling and extraordinary circumstances” for the standard and that manufacturers can develop and apply the necessary technology to meet the standards. Other states can then adopt California’s standards. Currently, 17 states and the District of Columbia follow the California standards, accounting for more than 40% of the U.S. automobile market.
California had never been denied a waiver until 2008, when the George W. Bush administration rejected California’s request to set its own emissions standard to regulate a number of greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles. The California law would have forced automakers to make vehicles that achieve sharply higher gas mileage beginning in 2009. The EPA denied the waiver on the basis that previous waivers were allowed to address local or regional pollution but climate change was not unique to California.
The Obama administration reversed the decision in 2013 and gave California the authority to set auto emissions standards that covered greenhouse gases through model year 2025. The waiver allowed the state to pursue its Advanced Clean Car program, which includes the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions and regulations to force the development of technology for its ZEV program. The Obama administration then developed unified standards for California and the federal government while still allowing California the authority to develop its more stringent standards.
In 2019, the Trump administration revoked California’s waiver under its Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule, which established a single national program for fuel efficiency and GHG emission standards rather than a unified California and federal system that allowed California stricter emissions standards. The revocation rolled back national standards to 2020 levels, as the Trump administration’s rule required a fleet-wide average of about 40 miles per gallon by 2026, while the Obama administration’s 2012 rules would increase fleet-wide averages to 54 miles per gallon by 2025. Officials said the decision would lead to cheaper and safer cars and provide regulatory certainty for auto manufacturers.
Auto emissions are the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States at nearly 30%, and the revocation of the waiver was a significant challenge to the state’s ZEV program and its goal to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. After the revocation of the waiver, Ford, Honda, BMW, Volkswagen and Volvo then signed an agreement with California to continue to follow the stricter emissions standard in the state. California and 22 other states also challenged the ruling and demanded a federal court block the agency from revoking its long-standing authority.
The Biden administration challenged the Trump administration’s legal reasoning to withdraw the waiver, and in December 2021, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration repealed its legal interpretation that the waiver system cannot be used for greenhouse gases. In March 2022, the EPA reinstated California’s authority under the Clean Air Act to implement its own emissions standards, a decision that will allow the state to set and enforce its greenhouse gas emission standards and its zero emission vehicle mandate. The decision restored California’s authority to regulate tailpipe emissions through model year 2025 vehicles, but the state will need a new waiver to regulate post-2025 vehicles. “The restoration of our state’s Clean Air Act waiver is a major victory for the environment, our economy, and the health of families across the country that comes at a pivotal moment underscoring the need to end our reliance on fossil fuels,” Newsom said.
The last installment of the introduction will discuss California’s increasing reliance on executive power in its developing role as a global energy and climate leader.