California’s right to exceed federal auto emissions standards is upheld


California’s authority to enact automotive air pollution standards that are stricter than federal law has withstood legal challenge after a U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Automobile Dealers Assn. did not have legal standing in the case.

Under the 1970 Clean Air Act, California may request waivers of federal standards to enact its own, stricter laws — a right granted because the state had its own pollution laws before the federal government’s.

However, the George W. Bush administration refused to grant California a waiver after it enacted a 2004 law to curb planet-heating carbon dioxide emissions from cars. The Obama administration issued the waiver in 2009, but it was challenged by the chamber and the auto dealers. Fourteen other states had adopted the California standard.


The three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit found that “Because the Chamber has not identified a single member who was or would be injured by EPA’s waiver decision, it lacks standing to raise this challenge.” The dealers too, it said, had failed to prove economic harm.

California and the Obama administration last year issued joint regulations to curb carbon dioxide pollution by 30% in cars through the 2016 model year, making the waiver unnecessary. But environmentalists remained concerned that a successful challenge could thwart California’s plans to adopt stricter clean car standards for post-2016 models.

“Even if EPA’s decision to grant California a waiver for its emission standards once posed an imminent threat of injury to the petitioners — which is far from clear — the agency’s subsequent adoption of federal standards has eliminated any independent threat that may have existed,” the court said in a ruling Friday.

Vickie Patton, general counsel of the Environmental Defense Fund, hailed the decision as “a major victory ... to break our dependence on oil, save families money at the gas pump and reduce dangerous pollution.”

In a statement, the auto dealers association said, “Unfortunately, this decision leaves in place the existing, extraneous California fuel economy standards. The current system of three overlapping sets of regulations — set by NHTSA, EPA and California — makes it more likely that automakers will be forced to build a fleet that does not match consumer demand.”

California is negotiating with the EPA and the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration on standards for new vehicle models through 2025. Environmentalists are urging an average fuel economy of 60 miles per gallon and a cut of 40% in carbon pollution.