EPA revives California's power to set its own auto emissions standards

Riley Beggin
The Detroit News

Washington — The Biden administration formally restored California's power to set its own emissions standards Wednesday, ending a years-long debate that divided the U.S. auto industry.

The Environmental Protection Agency's final rule reinstates a waiver put in place under former President Barack Obama that gave the California Air Resources Board the power to set more stringent vehicle emissions standards than the federal government. States can choose whether to join California's standards or stick with the federal requirements. 

Surface street traffic crosses above the U.S. 101 freeway in Los Angeles. The Environmental Protection Agency has restored California's authority to set its own auto emission standards.

“Today we proudly reaffirm California’s longstanding authority to lead in addressing pollution from cars and trucks,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement.

“Our partnership with states to confront the climate crisis has never been more important. With today’s action, we reinstate an approach that for years has helped advance clean technologies and cut air pollution for people not just in California, but for the U.S. as a whole.” 

Former President Donald Trump announced his administration would revoke the rule in 2019, arguing unified national standards would sell more cars and create more jobs. 

It kicked off a legal battle that cleaved the U.S. auto industry into two camps: One siding with an environmental group in a lawsuit challenging Trump's policy, and one siding with the administration. 

California is the most populous state in the U.S. and accounts for around 11% of all new-car sales in the U.S., according to the National Automobile Dealers Association. It's a large market with a penchant for stricter environmental rules, which more than a dozen states have chosen to follow. 

That means the state wields immense influence over the U.S. auto industry, which often designs vehicles sold nationwide to fit California standards in an effort to streamline production. 

Democrats, health advocacy groups and environmental groups praised the decision on Wednesday as an appropriate measure that will accelerate the country's fight against climate change. 

"States have long been leaders in cleaning up tailpipe pollution, and the EPA is absolutely right to recognize this," said Luke Tonachel, director for clean vehicles at Natural Resources Defense Council, in a statement. "Reaffirming this legal authority will protect public health and help address the climate crisis." 

Consumer Reports also said California's ability to set its own standards is important for building "a more equitable marketplace where more communities have several options for cleaner vehicles at affordable prices."

General Motors Co., Stellantis NV, Toyota Motor Corp. and 10 other automakers supported Trump in changing the rule. GM dropped the lawsuit shortly after President Joe Biden was elected in November 2020 as it turned to work with the administration on securing federal funding for the industry's EV transition, and the other automakers followed suit in February. 

Ford Motor Co., Honda Motor Co., BMW AG, Volkswagen AG and Volvo Cars Ltd. committed to stick with California's standards in 2020.

When Biden came into office, he signaled he would reverse Trump's policy and the Department of Transportation moved to withdraw the rule in April. EPA is responsible for finalizing the waiver. 

The state has had the authority to set its own air quality standards since the 1970 Clean Air Act acknowledged South California's unique problem with smog. Every presidential administration before Trump had granted the state's waiver to set stricter auto emissions standards except former President George W. Bush, according to the Los Angeles Times

rbeggin@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @rbeggin