California struck back at the Trump administration over air pollution Tuesday, unveiling a proposal that would force automakers to comply with the state’s strict standards for tailpipe emissions even as the federal government moves to weaken the rules.
The proposal, released by the California Air Resources Board, sharpens the conflict between the state and President Donald Trump over greenhouse gas emissions and attempts to reinforce the state’s ability to chart its own destiny in the fight against climate change.
Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a plan that loosens air-pollution rules — and challenges California’s unique authority under federal law to establish stricter standards for vehicles sold in the state.
Federal officials argued that there must be one nationwide standard for air pollution limits. Currently all vehicles sold in the United States meet California’s emissions standards.
The proposal the California air board put forth Tuesday would make clear that California isn’t backing down from the fight. To the contrary, it says any new car sold in California must comply with California’s regulations regardless of what the federal government says.
The air board “is trying to protect itself,” said Sean Hecht, an environmental law professor at UCLA. Without this plan, he said, automakers could argue that they’ve complied with California’s regulations by meeting the weaker national standards.
“I don’t think it’s symbolic,” Hecht said.
Mary Nichols, the chairwoman of the air board, said: “California will take all actions to ensure that the smart standards we developed in partnership with the auto industry to cut greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles stay in place.” The air board plans to vote on the proposal Sept. 27.
Having multiple standards in place — one for California, one for other states — would be a nightmare for automakers. They pressed the Trump administration for relaxed standards but also have sought some sort of compromise to prevent a state-by-state splintering of the rules.
“We are urging the regulators to work together and find a pathway forward,” Gloria Bergquist of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said when asked about the new California proposal.
In 2016, the Obama administration finalized a plan to slash greenhouse gas emissions on new vehicles sold through 2025 by roughly one-third, with the standards getting tougher in stages. Average fuel mileage for new vehicles would improve from about 36 miles per gallon to 54 mpg. California agreed to that schedule.
Last week, however, the Trump administration said it would freeze the standards at the 2020 level, approximately 37 mpg. Experts say the only practical way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to improve fuel economy.
The federal Clean Air Act, signed by President Richard Nixon in 1970, gives California the right to set stricter regulations if the EPA allows it. In its announcement last week, the Trump administration said it would challenge California’s authority to impose tougher rules on greenhouse gases.
The Trump administration’s move would also weaken California’s electric-vehicle rules, which require automakers to sell a certain number of electric cars and other “clean” vehicles in the state.