Trump Attempts to Lower Vehicle Emission Standards in California


Amanda Ruzumna

Last month, President Donald Trump prohibited California from setting its own standards on vehicle emissions by calling for a rollback on the state’s waiver of the Clean Air Act of 1968. Currently, California’s emission standards are higher than those set by the federal government, which is permitted by the waiver.

In 2012, former President Barack Obama took the initiative to protect the environment and limit carbon dioxide emissions by ramping up vehicle emission standards for all cars sold within the U.S. He required all vehicles produced by car manufacturers to average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. This new standard seemed a bit ambitious to many of the manufacturers, and they petitioned to have the standard revised. 

When Trump came into office, he responded by setting a new standard of 37 miles per gallon by 2020. Although a relief to many, this change angered some car companies and environmentalists who recognized the devastating effects this policy could have on the environment. 

California was very frustrated with Trump’s actions, largely because of the state’s priority to preserve the environment and fix the low air quality in several of its cities. Because California purchases more cars than any other state, its emission standards have a sizeable impact on the entire U.S. economy. This past July, California struck up a deal with four car manufacturers–Volkswagen, BMW, Ford, and Honda–that opposed Trump’s new standard. This deal raised the vehicle emission standard to 51 miles per gallon. Many other states have followed this example and now abide by the higher emission standards.

Trump’s waiver revision against California is part of his administration’s larger attempt to rollback energy standards set under Obama, including Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards. 

Trump defended his policy on Twitter, explaining that the lower emission standards would lower the price of cars, create more jobs for U.S. citizens, and make cars safer. EPA officials refuted his final claim, stating that the new standards could actually increase the number of highway deaths. Also on Twitter, Trump threatened automakers by stating if they did not comply to his new standard, they would go out of business.

Trump’s emissions rollback has created widespread discontent within the primarily democratic state of California and has evoked a backlash from many advocates of climate preservation. Thirteen other states and the District of Columbia have followed California’s lead by establishing higher emission standards and are likewise upset with Trump’s initial rollback of California’s waiver. Additionally, nationwide surveys reflect significant public support for higher emissions standards. 

California officials are angry with Trump’s actions and are prepared to fight back in court to prevent the rollback of the waiver from being implemented. Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom stated: “It’s a move that could have devastating consequences for our kids’ health and the air we breathe if California were to roll over. We will fight this latest attempt and defend our clean car standards.” 

California attorney general Becerra agreed, adding: “We’re ready to fight for a future that you seem unable to comprehend; we’ll see you in court if you stand in our way. While the White House clings to the past, automakers and American families embrace cleaner cars.”

We’re ready to fight for a future that you seem unable to comprehend; we’ll see you in court if you stand in our way.

California attorney general Becerra

Revoking California’s waiver could be the beginning of a long battle between the Trump Administration and California. Although the administration claims that the waiver violates section 209 of the Clean Air Act, many have claimed that there is nothing within the Act that allows a waiver to be taken away. 

Julia Stein, an environmental attorney and project director at the UCLA School of Law, commented: “… the California standards satisfy all of section 209’s requirements: they are at least as stringent as the federal government’s standards, they are necessary to meet compelling and extraordinary conditions that California faces both with respect to air pollution like smog and climate change, and they are consistent with section 202 of the Clean Air Act.”

A lengthy legal battle lies ahead as automakers and environmentalists wait for the outcome of the trial. Despite the wait on the decision of Trump’s attempted rollback, automakers are likely to continue making their vehicles more fuel efficient, as indicated by current trends and voluntary actions towards higher emissions standards. It is likely that the courts will rule against Trump, considering that he has lost ninety three percent of his previous lawsuits against environmental policies. 

If the courts were to uphold Trump’s rollback of the waiver, it would be hard for automakers to continue with their voluntary environmentally beneficial actions. Local governments would also have an easier time fighting clean transportation policies, legislation which has already been attempted in Nashville. Nashville could become a much less eco-friendly city if Trump were to succeed in his attempted rollback. But for now, all we can do is wait for the courts to act.