EPA threatens to cut off California's highway money over mpg standoff

Keith Laing
The Detroit News

Washington — In the latest escalation of a burgeoning fight over federal gas mileage rules for cars and trucks, the Trump administration is threatening to withhold highway funding from California. 

The Environmental Protection Agency said Tuesday in a letter to the California Air Resources Board that "California has failed to carry out its most basic tasks under the Clean Air Act."

The agency cited a backlog in California's State Implementation Plans, which states are required to provide to the EPA to demonstrate plans for complying with the federal Clean Air Act. Disapproval of a state implementation plan would allow the EPA to block California from receiving federal money and grants for transportation projects.  

Surface street traffic crosses above the US 101 freeway in Los Angeles, California.

"California has the worst air quality in the United States, with ... 34 million people living in areas that do not meet National Ambient Air Quality Standards — more than twice as many people as any other state in the country," EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler wrote in a letter to CARB Chairwoman Mary Nichols.

"As evidenced by the EPA’s recent work on interstate air pollution issues ..., California’s chronic air quality problems are not the result of cross-state air pollution or this administration’s regulatory reform efforts," Wheeler continued.

CARB Executive Officer Richard Corey said the EPA's letter threatening his state's highway funding "contains multiple inaccuracies, omissions and misstatements. EPA has unclean hands: It sat on these documents for years and is now pounding the table about paperwork issues of its own creation.

"We will continue to do work with EPA on its backlog, but EPA also needs to do its job and protect air quality. California and other states had to go to court, repeatedly, to get the EPA to implement the strict smog standards it claims to be worried about. 

"This letter appeared only days after EPA attacked our state authority on cars, increasing air pollution while at the same time limiting our ability to reduce it," Corey continued. "If the Trump administration is serious about air pollution it will reconsider revoking our waiver, and while they’re at it, why not also fund the EPA to review submitted documents in less than a decade.” 

The threat to withhold California's highway money comes amid an escalating fight over gas mileage rules between Washington and the nation's largest state, which accounts for 12 percent of the U.S. auto market. 

The Trump administration moved last 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.

California has already sued over the Trump administration's proposed rollback of stringent fuel economy rules that were adopted by the Obama administration in 2012. Michigan joined California and 21 other states on Friday in suing to stop the Trump administration from revoking  the Golden State's authority to set emission standards for cars and trucks.

"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 President Donald Trump confirmed the plan to move to revoke California's mpg rights in a tweet last Wednesday. 

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

Thirteen states and Washington, D.C., have adopted California’s mileage rules, meaning automakers could be left with one set of rules for a quarter of the country and another set for the remaining states unless the Trump administration and California can come to an agreement. 

California has reached an agreement with Ford Motor Co. and three foreign 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. 


(202) 662-8735

Twitter: @Keith_Laing