‘See you in court’
California and other states take on the Trump administration’s rollback of air-pollution regulations
The Trump administration has revoked California’s unique authority to combat tailpipe pollution on its own terms, setting the stage for protracted litigation, jeopardizing public health and hindering the state’s ability to battle climate change.
The announcement was tweeted by President Trump last Wednesday, Sept. 18, while he was in California on a two-day fundraising swing. The long-promised action was sure to be greeted with enthusiasm by his supporters here, as it features a trio of Trump trademarks: deregulation, dismantling of Obama-era environmental regulations and irritating California’s mostly Democratic policymakers.
The state’s response was swift. “See you in court,” Gov. Gavin Newsom tweeted, calling the decision “a continuation of a political vendetta.” Trump’s move, he said at a news conference, was more about asserting “power and dominance” than a well-reasoned policy change.
“It’s an aggressive move against the state,” Newsom said. “Pure politics. It’s about the oil industry, full stop.”
State Attorney General Xavier Becerra confirmed that the state would sue to block the rollback. On Friday, two days after Trump’s announcement, California and 22 other states challenged the president’s move by suing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. They argue that the administration exceeded its authority, that the decision was made without adequate justification and that it violates federal law.
California has had the authority to set its own standards to reduce planet-warming greenhouse gases in vehicle exhaust since 1970, granted by an exception written into the federal Clean Air Act in recognition of the state’s difficult history with choking smog.
California’s clean-air authorities say the state’s stringent rules are essential to protect public health and a critical tool to ensure the state achieves its goal of cutting greenhouse gases by 40 percent in the next 10 years.
Transportation is the top greenhouse-gas producer in California and a major contributor to air pollutants such as ozone—a component of smog that can aggravate asthma. Climate change is expected to make air quality even worse.
Air Board Chair Mary Nichols said last week that she had a “heavy heart” considering the health implications of the rule. Echoing the defiant tone of other California officials, Nichols asked Becerra if she could sign onto the state’s lawsuit.
“This is the fight of a lifetime for us; we have to win this,” Nichols said.
State officials said the federal EPA has issued more than 100 waivers, an authority that successive governors have relied on to address California’s persistent air-quality problems.
Former Gov. Jerry Brown, who also went toe-to-toe with Trump, took to Twitter to respond to the president’s announcement, saying: “Your toxic tweets are insufferable, but your pillaging of our clean air is criminal.”
Julia Stein, supervising attorney at UCLA’s Frank G. Wells Environmental Law Clinic, estimates the lawsuit could take up to 18 months. In the meantime, California may ask the court to keep its waiver in place until any litigation is resolved, Stein said.
California’s air board is confident of its legal standing, in part, state officials say, because the federal agency has failed to make a scientific or technical case for the waiver decision.
“Their work’s been bad. Their facts are bad,” said Craig Segall, assistant chief counsel for the California Air Resources Board, referring to the EPA’s analysis, which has been widely criticized. Anything can happen in litigation, he acknowledged, but “we’ve got the better of the argument, and it helps to have facts on your side.”
The administration has been vocal about its plans to roll back Obama-era efforts to clean up cars and light-duty trucks, an overhaul that 13 major automakers initially supported and California helped craft. Those standards set targets to reduce greenhouse gases from tailpipes and increase gas-mileage requirements to roughly 50 miles per gallon by model year 2025.
More than a year ago, Trump’s EPA proposed freezing the standards at 2020 levels through model year 2026, maintaining an average of about 37 miles per gallon. According to calculations from the federal Department of Transportation, the new rules would have the effect of adding millions of cars to the roads.
Anticipating the rollbacks and the regulatory uncertainty of a lengthy court battle, California and four major automakers cut their own deal in July. California agreed to give car makers more time and flexibility to meet the Obama-era targets, and the four manufacturers agreed to voluntarily comply with California’s standards.
That deal is still an unsigned, unfinalized framework. But on Sept. 6, the Trump administration launched an effort to derail it, saying the pact appeared to be “inconsistent with federal law.”
The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. Department of Justice was investigating whether the four car companies—Honda, Ford, BMW and Volkswagen—had violated antitrust law by forging the agreement with California.
But the state has remained defiant. This week, lawmakers confirmed that they have drafted a plan to enlist even more car makers by limiting the consumer rebate for electric-vehicle purchases to manufacturers who have joined the agreement.