The Environmental Protection Agency announced Monday that it will move to grant California permission to set more stringent climate requirements for cars and SUVs, a reversal of a key Trump administration policy.
The step, coming days after the Transportation Department withdrew Trump-era restrictions of state tailpipe emission rules, could help pave the way for a broader climate deal with the nation’s automakers. The EPA will hold a virtual public hearing on its proposal June 2, and will take comment on the plan until July 6.
The administration’s actions will give the populous state with big climate ambitions more leverage in discussions between car company executives, autoworkers and federal officials over national mileage and greenhouse gas emission standards for new passenger vehicles. Thirteen states and D.C. have signed on to California’s greenhouse gas vehicle standards. Collectively they represent 36% of the U.S. auto market.
“I am a firm believer in California’s long-standing statutory authority to lead. The 2019 decision to revoke the state’s waiver to enforce its greenhouse gas pollution standards for cars and trucks was legally dubious and an attack on the public’s health and wellbeing,” Joe Biden’s EPA administrator, Michael Regan, said in a statement. “Today, we are delivering on President Biden’s clear direction to tackle the climate crisis by taking a major step forward to restore state leadership and advance EPA’s greenhouse gas pollution reduction goals.”
On Thursday, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg took his own action by proposing to withdraw his department’s part of a Trump administration rule blocking states from setting their own tailpipe standards. And both announcements come on the heels of a summit hosted by Biden meant to spur other nations to ramp up their commitments to tackling climate change and build momentum for passage of an infrastructure package meant to build out a nationwide network of charging stations.
“The transportation sector is the U.S. economy’s largest contributor to greenhouse gases,” Buttigieg said Thursday in remarks at a charging station in Union Station in Washington to celebrate Earth Day. “And that relationship to the problem of climate change means that we in transportation can also be the biggest part of the solution.”
The proposed Transportation Department rule, which will be subject to 30 days of public comment once it is published in the Federal Register, will no longer bar individual states such as California from establishing their own greenhouse gas emissions standards and zero-emissions vehicle mandates.
A year ago, the EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration finalized a rule to improve average fuel efficiency by 1.5% per year, compared with a nearly 5% annual increase that was set to take effect under President Barack Obama. But just last week, investigators with the EPA’s inspector general concluded that the Trump administration improperly sidelined career staffers when unwinding Obama-era pollution standards.
But Republicans say giving California the authority to set its own, tougher standards may lead to a patchwork of car pollution rules in the country that will frustrate carmakers and consumers. They also argue that tough emissions rules will make new cars more expensive, encouraging Americans to keep driving older and less-safe vehicles.
“If the Biden administration is serious about road safety, affordability, and securing a cleaner American energy future, he should not be allowing California to dictate the vehicles people drive in Indiana, South Carolina, Ohio, or in eastern Washington,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the top Republican on the House Energy Committee, said in a statement.
But carmakers, autoworkers and environmentalists are eager to strike a deal with both the federal government and California to create one set of nationwide standards for tailpipe emissions. It will take a few months for the Biden administration to restore California’s authority to impose greenhouse gas standards on cars and trucks. Regan told lawmakers Wednesday that the administration will propose nationwide standards for tailpipe emissions in mid-July.
“States like California have historically the right to lead the way,” he said. “The federal government can indeed learn from states, and that’s what we plan to continue to do.”
Alliance for Automotive Innovation CEO John Bozzella, whose members produce nearly all of the cars and light trucks sold in the United States, said in a statement that he hopes Monday’s announcement is “a step to a revised national program that includes California and brings all automakers under a unified set of common requirements and ensures a level, competitive playing field.”
Ford Motor Co. was among a handful of automakers that promised California it would produce cars more fuel-efficient than what the Trump administration required. “Ford has long recognized California’s legal right to regulate greenhouse gases at a tougher rate than the federal government,” the company said in a statement Monday.
Even without a waiver from the federal government to set its own pollution standards, California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom announced last year that the state would phase out sales of gasoline-powered cars by 2035.
“California welcomes the resumption of our decades-long collaboration with federal partners to develop strong vehicle emissions standards into the next decade,” Newsom said in a statement.
Several major automakers, too, have announced plans to end sales of cars with internal-combustion engines in the coming decades. The Japanese automaker Honda is the latest, announcing last week during Biden’s climate summit that it plans to stop selling gasoline-powered vehicles in North America by 2040. General Motors has pledged to stop making gas-fueled passenger cars, vans and SUVs by 2035.
But some advocates and politicians are pressing automakers to move even faster, which has caused tensions with some companies and the industry’s largest union, the United Auto Workers.
Sierra Club President Ramón Cruz, whose group sued the EPA to try to preserve California’s waiver, celebrated the coming reversal of what he said was “one of Donald Trump’s most egregious attacks on our nation’s climate policy.”
But he added that the Biden administration must now craft policy that encourages Americans to adopt zero-emission cars as quickly as possible. “It is not enough to reverse the damage done,” he said.