Ford, Volkswagen, BMW and others seek to defend California emissions powers

Riley Beggin
The Detroit News

Washington — Ford Motor Co. and the U.S. branches of Volkswagen AG, BMW AG, Honda Motor Co. and Volvo Cars Ltd. are asking to intervene in a federal lawsuit to defend California's power under the Clean Air Act to set its own stringent emissions standards. 

It marks the re-entry of major automakers into a fight that divided the industry under former President Donald Trump, who revoked California's waiver allowing it to set its own emissions standards, which are generally more stringent than the federal government and have wide-ranging impact on the U.S. auto industry.

Surface street traffic crosses above the U.S. 101 freeway in Los Angeles, where smog has been a longstanding problem.

When President Joe Biden came into office, he directed the administration to reverse the decision and in March, the Environmental Protection Agency restored the waiver.

In mid-May, Republican attorneys general in 17 states challenged that decision in court. Led by Ohio, the suit argued the waiver violates the U.S. Constitution's "equal sovereignty" principle. California and 19 other states also joined the suit defending the waiver powers.

In the motion filed Tuesday, the automakers listed their multi-billion dollar commitments to electrifying their fleets. California's emissions regulations have "helped to maintain a level playing field" as the industry builds lower-emitting technology, they wrote. 

"Now, electrification is the innovation that will eliminate emissions from vehicles while also providing drivers with performance, power, and digital integration that was never possible before," the companies wrote. "Confirming the validity of the Waiver Decision will promote stability and regulatory certainty while the industry goes electric."

Ford General Counsel and Chief Policy Officer Steven Croley and Bob Holycross, the company's vice president for sustainability, environment and safety engineering, reiterated that automakers work on lengthy timelines to ensure vehicles can comply with emission standards. 

"This is the right thing to do for people and for the planet. But it's also important in the industry for its success moving forward," Croley said Tuesday. "This step moves us closer to a zero emissions transportation future. It also creates regulatory stability ... for the industry."

Regulatory stability and predictability have long been central to the debate over whether California should retain its power to set standards. Trump announced his administration would revoke the rule in 2019, arguing that 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. 

General Motors Co., Stellantis NV, Toyota Motor Corp. and 10 other automakers supported Trump in changing the rule. GM dropped the lawsuit shortly after 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 2021. 

The five automakers who sought to intervene in the suit Tuesday committed in 2020 to stick with California's standards.

In January, GM recognized California's authority to set its own vehicle emission standards, but said Tuesday it has not filed a motion to intervene in the lawsuit. Stellantis declined comment, while Toyota did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, the leading advocacy group representing automakers in the U.S., noted it is not party to the litigation and did not comment further on Tuesday's filing.

California has had the authority to set its own air quality standards since the 1970 Clean Air Act acknowledged southern 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.

Twitter: @rbeggin