Californians interested in keeping this state’s toughest-in-the-world standards for automotive smog pollution heaved a sigh of relief just over one year ago, when the federal Environmental Protection Agency reversed an earlier decision to impose new national ozone standards on all cars sold in America.
That relief turns out to have been premature.
For on the same day this summer that the petulant and thin-skinned President Trump began revoking security clearances from former government officials who have criticized him, his EPA also announced plans to end California’s authority for setting its own smog standards.
That will take some doing, of course, because the federal Clean Air Act signed by Republican President Richard Nixon in 1970 specifically gives California that power. Yes, the state must get EPA waivers to take particular actions, but the landmark law makes that virtually automatic.
And 13 other states now regularly adopt California’s anti-smog regulations soon after they become effective here, with Colorado poised to make it 14. All those states are joining California in resisting the EPA’s latest threat. Many foreign countries with smog problems — Greece, France and Germany, for three examples — have also adopted most California regulations.
Of course, every time California proposes a new regulation, carmakers like General Motors, Toyota and Daimler-Benz claim their sales will drop due to costs of the change. But more than 2 million cars and trucks were sold in California last year, a record. And sales in the other states using California rules are also solid. Still, Trump aides argue they would be even better if prices were cut via less regulation.
When President George W. Bush tried to deny a waiver for greenhouse gas regulation in early 2008, he lost in court. But today’s U.S. Supreme Court has a different — largely anti-regulation — majority, so there’s a possibility Trump could ultimately win on this issue, despite what the law says. The best hope for California and its cohort of cooperating states is to keep their lawsuit going for at least two years, betting Trump will lose in 2020.
Over the decades, California’s unique authority produced the first primitive smog control devices, catalytic converters, hybrids like the strong-selling Toyota Prius, plug-in hybrids, electric cars and the current first generation of super-clean hydrogen-powered vehicles. Just as important has been a steady reduction in automotive smog, allowing residents of many urban areas once covered with murky brown air to see nearby mountain ranges and breathe significantly cleaner air.
Now the EPA threatens to revoke California’s authority to limit carbon emissions from tailpipes and force carmakers to sell specific percentages of zero-emission vehicles here, thus reversing major advances.
Trump, with support from a few automakers, wants uniform national smog standards, despite the Clean Air Act’s recognition that California smog problems are unique and more serious than any other state’s.
For sure, if the new Trump plan goes forward, it will slow the pace of automotive cleanups long set by California’s Air Resources Board.
One serious question, since automaker warnings of diminished profits and sales due to smog regulation have never panned out, is whether Trump is merely being vengeful in going after California despite his Republican Party’s longstanding support for state’s rights.
After all, this state voted against him by about 3 million votes in 2016 and he remains abysmally unpopular here. The suspicion that he’s merely seeking revenge by trying to reduce the quality of life here is fueled by his consistent targeting of any person or country that dares criticize or oppose him.
No, say supporters of his proposed change. “The administration is fulfilling its commitment to reinstate midterm evaluation of future fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards,” said Mitch Bainwol, head of the Alliance of Automobile Makers, which includes GM, Fiat-Chrysler, Ford, Mitsubishi and Daimler-Benz, among others.
The bottom line: Scaling back today’s rules would put America far behind other countries in seeking reduced dependence on oil and gasoline. Germany and France, for example, will ban sales of all gas-powered cars with in the next two to three decades.
The proposed Trump move would not only run counter to the Clean Air Act, but also would move America backward environmentally while making it a less healthy country to live in than it is today.
Email Thomas Elias at [email protected]