The California Emissions Waiver Lawsuit—Explained

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Twenty-three states are suing the Trump administration to maintain California’s ability to set its own emissions standards. What you need to know about the case—and why it matters.

Twenty-two states have joined California in a lawsuit aimed at protecting the state’s ability to set stricter emissions standards than those proposed by the federal government. The highly publicized battle stems from the administration’s decision to relax Obama-era emissions standards and revoke California’s ability to set its own.

The administration’s proposed standard would lower the national fuel economy requirement from an average of 54.5 miles per gallon to about 37 miles per gallon by 2025. However, 23 states are demanding that California maintain its ability to set stricter standards, in part because they say more aggressive laws are needed to protect public health and meet state air pollution reduction goals. As it stands, the administration’s decision to revoke California’s ability to set its own standards will take effect Nov. 26, according to a notice in the Federal Register

But how likely is it that states could win a legal battle against the administration? And how did California earn its original emissions waiver? Here’s what you need to know about the state’s existing ability to regulate emissions and the arguments for and against revoking a state’s waiver to set its own emissions standards. 

Why does California have a waiver?

California has been setting its own air quality laws for decades. Margo Oge, director of the Office of Transportation and Air Quality at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from 1994 to 2012, said that California began setting its own standards since as early as 1967, before the EPA—the federal agency that is revoking the state’s waiver—was even formed. And the lawsuit filed by 23 states in federal court last month claims California has been regulating vehicle emissions for even longer—since 1959.

The state was first granted a federal waiver to set its own air quality standardsincluding emissions standards—in 1968 under the Clean Air Act. The law was amended in 1970, and the EPA was given responsibility to set standards for any air pollutants. The amended law recognized that California required more aggressive standards than other states given its air quality problems, growing population, location and weather, according to the California Air Resources Board. The decision also acknowledged that the state had already been setting its own standards, even before the Clean Air Act began mandating federal ones.

California’s ability to set its own standards isn’t just important for California. It has national significance as well. The Clean Air Act eventually incorporated language that allowed other states to adopt California’s stricter standards, Oge said. Today, 14 states have adopted or are in the process of adopting California’s standards, according to Reuters.

Over the years, California has been granted hundreds of waivers to set its own emissions laws. But are the tougher standards actually helping to decrease the state’s greenhouse gas emissions? 

According to an August report from the California Air Resources Board, 2017 was the second year in a row that California’s greenhouse gas emissions dropped below a statewide 2020 target established by the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. This happened even as the California economy grew at a rate of 3.6 percent1.4 percent above the national average, according to the report.

“The study proves that this stuff is working,” Oge said. 

She said that California’s wildfires, droughts and eroding beaches show that the state needs the tougher standards. Carbon emissions contribute to a warming climate, which can cause these environmental challenges. It would be harder for California to meet state air pollution reduction goals without stricter emissions standards, according to the lawsuit. 

“The administration is going to have an impossible task to assess that California doesn’t have an extraordinary need for cleaner air given the data that exists out there,” she said.

What are the arguments for and against the waiver?

The Trump administration cites multiple reasons for revoking California’s ability to set its own emissions laws. Chief among them is to prevent the auto industry from having to comply with multiple standards. 

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a prepared statement in mid-September that “one national standard provides much needed regulatory certainty for the automotive industry.” Essentially, if California were to continue setting far stricter standards than those federally mandated for other states, automakers might feel forced to create vehicles for two different standards.

Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao said in the same statement that the administration’s action aims to ensure “that no state has the authority to opt out of the nation’s rules and no state has the ability to impose its policies on the rest of the country.”

The EPA declined to provide additional comments beyond the prepared statement. 

Dennis McLerran, an attorney with Cascadia Law Group in Seattle, said he believes the administration’s argument is built on “very shaky ground.” 

McLerran said automakers operate in a global market with more sales in China than in the U.S. With increasingly stricter emissions standards in those markets, McLerran said the U.S. risks falling behind if it relaxes its own standards

He added that the administration’s other argumentsfor instance, that relaxing standards will make cars safer and cheaper to buyhave been disproved by California officials. 

A study released by Consumer Reports in August found that consumers would pay more overall under the proposed, relaxed standards compared to the existing ones. Under the current standardswhich affect cars from model year 2017 to 2025American consumers net $660 billion dollars in gasoline and other savings, according to the study. Consumers would lose $460 billion of those savings under the proposed standards because they would be spending more each year on fuel. 

The study also noted that the proposed standard would decrease auto sales by more than 2 million vehicles between model year 2021 and 2035, and it would not improve safety. This decrease would happen, in part, because rising fuel costs would mean consumers have less money to spend on new vehicles, according to the study. The same study also noted that improved fuel economy makes vehicles more attractive. 

Oge said that in addition to possibly creating a more difficult marketplace for automakers, the administration’s proposed standards will stifle innovation. She added that California’s ability to set stricter rules has helped it serve as a laboratory for experimentation in different technologies, like electric vehicles. 

“What is really at stake in attacking the California authority is that it’s going to undermine clean air, it’s going to undermine innovation in the marketplace, and it’s going to undermine the global efforts of the car companies,” Oge said.

Why are 23 states filing suit? 

On Sept. 20, nearly two dozen states filed to sue to prevent the Trump administration from revoking California’s ability to set its own standards, according to a complaint filed in federal court.

The complaint claims that California’s standards “are longstanding and fundamental parts of many [states’] efforts to protect public health and welfare in their states.” 

The states contend that the administration hasn’t considered the damage that revoking the waiver will inflict on the environment, public health and welfare.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) said in an emailed statement Monday that her state “is not going to sit on the sidelines while the Trump administration does everything it can, in the little time we have left, to shove us off track from our climate goals.”

Other states joining the lawsuit include California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin. The District of Columbia has also joined the lawsuit. 

Gov. Lujan Grisham said the state’s recent decision to uphold California’s emissions standards gives New Mexico “the opportunity to join the legal pushback against the attempted Trump rollbacks.”

What’s next? 

McLerran said one of the administration’s main arguments for revoking California’s waiver is that the state is setting a fuel economy requirement, not an emissions requirement. However, California has been careful to defend its standard as a way to reduce climate-warming emissions, he said. This is important because the states’ complaint argues that stricter standards will protect public health and air quality. 

Oge noted that if the lawsuit goes to the Supreme Court, it won’t be until after the next election. That is significant because the winner of the next presidential election will greatly influence how the case unfoldsand whether it goes to the Supreme Court at all. 

In the meantime, Oge said the pending lawsuit puts automakers in a state of limbo because the companies typically plan five years ahead for production. Right now, there’s no guarantee of what to expect. 

On whether California could win a lawsuit if it were to go to the highest court, Oge said she feels confident that California has enough science to support its argument for stricter standards. Still, she said it’s painful to see environmental issues become partisan.

“We all breathe the same air. We drink the same water,” she said. 

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