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California moves to safeguard vehicle emissions rules from Trump rollback

California moves to safeguard vehicle emissions rules from Trump rollback
A proposal by California air quality regulators aims to safeguard the state's vehicle emissions rules against the Trump administration's plans to revoke them. Above, traffic along the interchange of the 101 and 10 freeways in downtown Los Angeles. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

California is firing back at the Trump administration with a plan to safeguard the state’s greenhouse gas emissions rules from a proposed federal rollback.

A state Air Resources Board proposal released Tuesday would force automakers to meet California’s existing standards on car and truck pollution, even if weaker ones are adopted by the Trump administration.

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California regulators said the clarification is a protective move intended to close a potential loophole automakers might use to elude compliance with tougher standards adopted jointly with the Obama administration.

Mary Nichols, who chairs the California Air Resources Board, said the changes make it clear to auto manufacturers that they will have to adhere to two different emissions standards: One for California and the dozen other states that follow its rules and another for the rest of the country.

It’s also an attempt by California to shore up its legal footing ahead of what is likely to be an extended court battle with the Trump administration. Last week the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration unveiled a plan to freeze fuel economy targets nationwide while moving to end California’s power to set its own more stringent standards and invalidate the state’s electric vehicle mandate.

“This is just one in a series of steps that the state is taking to make sure it is attacking on every legal front imaginable,” said Ann Carlson, a professor of environmental law at UCLA.

The move brings the U.S. one step closer to splitting its auto market in two. Automakers had asked the Trump administration to relax the rules, but don’t want the logistical headache of building two different models of cars for red states and blue states.

EPA acting administrator Andrew Wheeler met with Nichols last month and “has pledged to work in earnest with the state of California to find a solution,” agency spokesman James Hewitt said.

Cars and trucks are the dominant source of pollution in California, and state regulators say easing emissions rules jeopardizes their ability to meet climate and air pollution targets, including federal smog-reduction deadlines and state mandates to slash greenhouse gas emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. The Air Resources Board proposal says meeting those targets is crucial “to combat the effects of climate change, including raging wildfires, coastal erosion, disruption of water supply … and continuing health threats from air pollution.”

Weaker standards, left unaddressed, could slow progress fighting climate change, “waste billions of gallons of gasoline, and cost consumer money on fuel,” according to the proposal scheduled for consideration by the board on Sept. 27.

The standards California and its allies are fighting to keep aim to increase the fuel economy of cars and trucks to about 36 miles per gallon in real-world driving by 2025.

The Trump administration’s plan would freeze mileage targets at the 2020 level of about 30 mpg in real-world driving. In doing so, the administration would undermine the federal government’s single biggest action to slow climate change by increasing oil consumption, worsening air pollution and contributing to the rise of global temperatures.

Federal officials have argued for the rollback on traffic safety grounds, saying it would lower costs, in turn helping the auto industry sell more new vehicles with better safety features. But officials within the EPA have questioned whether the evidence behind that claim will hold up in court. Such arguments are contradicted by studies completed during the Obama years that found that stricter fuel standards could be achieved without sacrificing safety.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Assn. of Global Automakers, the industry’s two lobbying groups, have not endorsed the Trump administration’s proposal to freeze the standards in 2020 and are urging California and the federal government to negotiate a compromise.

“Automakers support one national program with continued improvements in MPG that meet the needs of America’s drivers,” the Auto Alliance tweeted Monday.

California and its allies are vowing to use every tool at their disposal to fight the Trump administration’s rollback, arguing that they have authority under the Clean Air Act to keep the Obama-era standards in place. Gov. Jerry Brown has blasted the administration’s plan as “an assault on the health of Americans” and a “reckless scheme.”

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At the same time, both California and federal officials have suggested a deal could be struck.

Hewitt, the EPA spokesman, said the agency “is looking forward to sitting down with California in the very near future to have a conversation about whether an agreement can reached.”

Nichols said there were no meetings scheduled, but did not rule out some kind of relaxation of the standards, such as giving the auto industry more time to comply. “What we would need to see is some additional measures that would give us confidence that we’re not going to be losing ground when it comes to greenhouse gases.”

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