Feds move to revoke California's right to set mpg rules

Keith Laing
The Detroit News

Washington — The Trump administration moved Thursday to revoke California's right to set its own gas mileage rules for vehicles, expressing confidence it will prevail in a legal fight that creates uncertainty for automakers.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said Thursday that their agencies will revoke the Clean Air Act waiver that has been used by California since 1967 to set its own emission standards. That would undo California's Advanced Clean Car Rule, which calls for automakers to reduce pollution from new cars from 2012 model-year levels by 40% by 2025.

Thirteen states and Washington, D.C., have adopted California’s mileage rules, meaning the rules for automakers for a quarter of the country could be left up in the air until a case that is likely to end up before the U.S. Supreme Court is decided. 

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler on Thursday announced plans to revoke a waiver that lets California set its own fuel economy rules.

"No state has the authority to opt out of the nation’s rules, and no state has the right to impose its policies on everybody else in our country," Chao said in a press conference at the EPA's headquarters in Washington. "We will not let political agendas in a single state be forced upon the other 49." 

Wheeler added: "Our goal from the beginning was a 50-state solution. ... We embrace federalism and the role of states, but federalism does not mean that one state can dictate standards for the entire country." 

Under current federal law, California submits waiver requests under a provision in the Clean Air Act that allows it to ask for EPA approval of the right to set higher mpg rules to lower air pollution. Wheeler said the Trump administration's would revoke the state's most recent waiver, issued in 2013, and institute a new "One National Program Rule” under the grounds that Congress intended for the federal government alone to set fuel economy for entire nation. 

"We believe the law is clear," Wheeler said. "No state has the authority to opt out of national fuel economy standards. And no state has the authority to set its own fuel economy standards, and no state has the authority to set its own fuel economy standards that impact human safety, the environment and commerce for the rest of the country.

"It makes sense that Congress carved out waiver authority for California to address its unique local problems," Wheeler continued. "It does not make sense to use that authority to try to address national and global issues like greenhouse gas emissions. It’s time to put California’s waiver back its box, the box that Congress always intended it to stay in." 

The announcement, pre-empted Wednesday by President Donald Trump on Twitter, has been met with fierce resistance in California, which has already sued over the Trump administration's proposed rollback of stringent fuel economy rules that were adopted by the Obama administration in 2012. The state's Democratic leaders signaled Wednesday they intend to go back to court to protect their right to set their own mpg rules. 

"Our message to those who claim to support states’ right: Don’t trample on ours,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a Democrat, said in a press conference shortly after the president's comments. 

“For us, this is about survival," Becerra continued. "Our communities are screaming for help to address the climate crisis...We’re prepared to lead. We’re prepared to fight. We’ll do what we must.”

Becerra noted that California's requests for previous mpg waivers have been approved by multiple U.S. administrations. 

"I want to be clear – every time California sets a new air-pollution rule for new motor vehicles, we have to get a waiver from the EPA. Every time," he said Wednesday. "Since Gov. – not Newsom – Gov. Ronald Reagan was in office, we’ve had approvals... We’ve been granted more than 100 waivers, never has one been rejected, that’s 50 years of receiving waivers to set standards."

The Trump administration and California have battled over gas mileage rules since the earliest days of Trump's presidency. 

The Trump administration announced last year its intention to ease stringent gas-mileage rules that would have required fleets averaging nearly 55 miles per gallon by 2025. The administration proposed a freeze in the mandate after 2020, touching off a fierce battle with California, which helped craft the Obama-era rules.

The two sides attempted to negotiate a potential agreement, but the White House said in February it was pulling out of the talks and moving forward with its proposed freeze. 

California has vowed to fight any attempt to revoke its right to set its own mileage rules in court. The state has reached an agreement with Ford Motor Co. and three other automakers to voluntarily increase the average fuel economy of their fleets from 2021 levels by 3.7% per year, reaching an average of nearly 50 mpg by 2026. The U.S. Department of Justice has launched an antitrust investigation into that agreement.

General Motors Co., Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and other automakers have faced pressure from Democratic lawmakers to join the voluntarily agreement with California. 

Ford said in a statement: "We have consistently said that the best path forward is a negotiated settlement that offers a workable compromise. We need regulatory certainty, not litigation.”

Democrats have decried both the effort to roll back the Obama-era mpg rules and take California's right to set its own gas mileage rules. 

"Donald Trump continues his relentless effort to roll back the hard-fought progress we made in the Obama-Biden Administration," former Vice President Joe Biden, who is running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, tweeted Wednesday. "Higher auto emission standards make the air we all breathe cleaner, keep us healthier—and keep our auto industry competitive in the global marketplace." 

Trump has defended his move to revoke California's mpg rules as an effort to protect car buyers from higher prices for new cars, although there is little evidence to support the claim that his proposal to roll back the Obama-era mpg rules will lower sticker prices. 

"The Trump Administration is revoking California’s Federal Waiver on emissions in order to produce far less expensive cars for the consumer, while at the same time making the cars substantially SAFER," Trump tweeted Wednesday. "This will lead to more production because of this pricing and safety advantage, and also due to the fact that older, highly polluting cars, will be replaced by new, extremely environmentally friendly cars."

Car prices indeed have climbed since 2012, when Barack Obama's White House finalized rules that would have required automakers to achieve fleetwide averages of more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025. But those increases can be attributed largely to the inclusion of new technologies such as infotainment systems and safety features — and because buyers are opting for bigger, more luxurious cars and trucks.

The average price of a new car in 2012 was $31,616, according to Kelley Blue Book. In 2017, when the mpg rules began taking effect, the average new car price was $35,300. Today, it is $37,307. 

“Consumers love when their cars go further on less fuel, which is why they are buying so many fuel-efficient SUVs and crossovers," said Shannon Baker-Branstetter, manager of cars and energy policy at Consumer Reports. "So the assertion that consumers would buy fewer vehicles if their vehicles went further on less gas doesn’t add up."


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Twitter: @Keith_Laing