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Can Trump Really Overturn California Emissions Standards?

Exhaust pipe of a car - blowing out the pollution. Exhaust pipe coming out of the car with its exhaust. View from below, see the bottom of the exhaust pipe silver. Visible rear bumper eclipse of gray.
By Christopher Coble, Esq. on September 19, 2019 8:00 AM

Under the federal Clean Air Act of 1970, California received a waiver to set stricter fuel emissions standards than those imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency. The legal exemption was based on the state's ongoing issues with smog in metropolitan areas, and it must be renewed periodically, which happened most recently in 2009.

But after years of sparring with the Golden State (over everything from sanctuary laws to homelessness), President Donald Trump threatened to revoke California's emissions exemption and, as with many of his other threats, the state plans to respond with legal action.

Twitter Policy

The president fired off three tweets in support of the new policy today:

Aside from dubious claims of increased safety and more autoworker jobs, is such a revocation even legally possible? Not yet. State Attorney General Xavier Becerra has already threatened to sue if Trump revoked the waiver, claiming the move has "no basis and no authority."

Former EPA official Jeff Alson also told the New York Times "there is no legal basis" for revoking the waiver. "If the courts allow this unprecedented reversal, and the Trump EPA massively rolls back the federal Clean Car Standards," Alson, now with the Environmental Protection Network after four decades in the agency, said, "then President Trump will have done more to destroy the planet than any other president in history."

State of the Country

California's waiver is far from state-specific. As the nation's largest auto market, California (along with 13 other states that followed suit) set a de facto national standard, since manufacturers are reluctant to design different sets of vehicles to meet different standards in different states. If Trump's action does survive legal challenges, the EPA would set a national standard for fuel emissions, regulations the agency has already tried to roll back and over which California has already filed suit.

Even major automakers weren't in favor of the administration's emissions rollback. In July, four automakers -- BMW, Ford, Honda, and Volkswagen -- signed a deal with California to comply with tighter emissions standards on all new vehicles through 2026. Expect another long, drawn-out legal fight if Trump follows through on his latest Twitter threats.

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