California Leaders Slam Trump Administration's New Car Rules as 'Deadly Regulatory Backsliding'

Emissions-producing diesel trucks and cars along the 10 freeway on December 8, 2009 near Banning, California.  (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

It's official. After years of blustery promises and draft proposals, the Trump administration Tuesday released final rules tossing out auto emissions standards and gutting one of the U.S.’s biggest efforts to fight climate change.

The rollback raises the ceiling on damaging fossil fuel emissions for years, ends ambitious Obama-era vehicle mileage standards and finalizes a plan to eliminate California’s right to enact stricter tailpipe emissions rules than the federal government--a right the state has had for more than a half a century.

The Trump administration's final rule sets mileage standards through 2026. They water down a tough mileage standard that would have encouraged automakers to ramp up production of electric vehicles and more fuel-efficient gas and diesel vehicles.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra slammed the Trump administration's new rules saying they are in violation of the law and promised to challenge them in court. "We will do everything necessary to protect the interest of the people of California,” he said.

“We see with the move today the Trump administration is gutting the Clean Car Standard,” he said “We can expect the continued degradation of health and the environment.”

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“Their move today won’t drive innovation,” he said. “We need to continue to move toward the cleanest, safest cars on our road as possible.”

“Rather than learn from its deadly regulatory backsliding, the Trump Administration instead weakens standards that protect our health and environment from polluting contaminants emitted by cars and trucks," he said. "That’s unacceptable. And that’s not where California or America will go.”

Ann Carlson, a law professor at UCLA, also questioned the legality of the Trump administration’s new rules. She says the policy does not fit “with their statutory obligations.”

“The motivation here is to promote fossil fuels,” she said. “That's been an underlying justification for a lot of the environmental rollbacks the Trump administration is engaged in.”

She says the administration has a legal obligation to protect public health and the environment and to maximize fuel economy. “When you take a look at the justifications, they're really trying to fit a square peg into a round hole just doesn't fit well,” she said.

California and about a dozen other states say they will continue resisting the Trump standards in court.

California's Waiver

In September, the Trump administration announced its intention to withdraw California's waiver that allowed it to set its own tougher smog rules.

California’s exemption was previously provided to the state under the Clean Air Act; state officials are suing to  keep the waiver.

Mary Nichols, California’s top air regulator, has said the state’s ability to set its own car rules is necessary to protect public health in California and fight climate change. She’s called the dispute “the fight of a lifetime for us.”

Nichols said in a phone call with reporters that her office has been in touch with industry representatives and they are still planning to manufacture cars to California’s standard for tailpipe emissions and electric vehicles. 

“They will meet the requirements of our rules,” she said. “That is what they have said.”

“The companies, based on their legal advice and on their desire not to be directly implicated in the ongoing litigation, are saying that they will meet fleet average basis in our state and other states that follow the California rules,” Nichols said.

She also announced that Volvo is considering joining Ford, BMW, Honda and Volkswagen in a voluntary deal to ramp up fuel efficiency standards over time and encourage investment in electric vehicles.

California Senator Dianne Feinstein criticized the Trump administration for relaxing pollution rules during a global pandemic.

“I believe rolling back emissions standards for vehicles and relaxing important monitoring and reporting standards during this pandemic is a serious error,” she wrote in a letter. “Given the respiratory nature of COVID-19, I believe it is more important than ever to improve air quality, and I urge EPA to work in a collaborative fashion with state and local partners to do so.”

She asked the Trump administration to allow California to continue to set its own tailpipe emissions standards.

Trump's New Rules

The Trump administration's final rules come after two years of the president threatening and fighting states and automakers that opposed the move.

“We are delivering on President Trump’s promise to correct the current fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions standards,” Andrew Wheeler, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, said in a statement Tuesday marking the release.

He said the final rule “puts in place a sensible” national program that “strikes the right regulatory balance that protects our environment, and sets reasonable targets for the auto industry. This rule supports our economy, and the safety of American families.”

Opponents contend the change — gutting his predecessor’s legacy effort against climate-changing fossil fuel emissions — appears driven by Trump’s push to undo the regulatory initiatives of former President Barack Obama and say even the Trump administration itself has had difficulty pointing to the kinds of specific, demonstrable benefits to drivers, public health and safety or the economy that normally accompany standards changes.

The Trump administration says the looser mileage standards will allow consumers to keep buying the less fuel-efficient SUVs that U.S. drivers have favored for years. Opponents say it will kill several hundred more Americans a year through dirtier air, compared to the Obama standards.

Even “given the catastrophe they’re in with the coronavirus, they’re pursuing a policy that’s going to hurt public health and kill people,” said Chet France, a former 39-year veteran of the EPA who served as a senior official over emissions and mileage standards.

“This is first time that an administration has pursued a policy that will net negative benefit for society and reduce fuel savings,” France said.

Trump’s Cabinet has continued a push to roll back public health and environment regulations despite the coronavirus outbreak riveting the world’s attention. The administration — like others before it — is facing procedural rules that will make changes adopted before the last six months of Trump’s current term tougher to throw out, even if the White House changes occupants.

Business Uncertainty

The standards have split the auto industry with Ford, BMW, Honda and Volkswagen siding with California and agreeing to higher standards. Most other automakers contend the Obama-era standards were enacted hastily and will be impossible to meet because consumers have shifted dramatically away from efficient cars to SUVs and trucks.

Last year, 72% of the new vehicles purchased by U.S. consumers were trucks or SUVS. It was 51% when the current standards went into effect in 2012.

The Obama administration mandated 5% annual increases in fuel economy. The Trump administration standards call for a 1.5% annual increase, backing off from an initial proposal simply to stop mandating increases in fuel efficiency after 2020.

The transportation sector is the nation’s largest source of climate-changing emissions.

John Bozzella, CEO of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, a trade group representing automakers, said the industry still wants middle ground between the two standards, and it supports year-over-year mileage increases. But he says the Obama-era standards are outdated due to the drastic shift to trucks and SUVs.

The Trump administration standards are likely to cause havoc in the auto industry because, with legal challenges expected, automakers won’t know which standards they will have to obey.

“It will be extraordinarily disruptive,” said Richard J. Pierce Jr., a law professor at the George Washington University who specializes in government regulations.

States and environmental groups will challenge the Trump rules, and a U.S. District Court likely will issue a temporary order shelving them until it decides whether they are legal. The temporary order likely will be challenged with the Supreme Court, which in recent cases has voted 5-4 that a District judge can’t issue such a nationwide order, Pierce said. But the nation’s highest court could also keep the order in effect if it determines the groups challenging the Trump standards are likely to win.

“We’re talking quite a long time, one to three years anyway, before we can expect to get a final decision on the merits,” Pierce said.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.