Battle between Trump and California over car pollution heads to court

The 110 Freeway on a Friday afternoon in 2013.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

California and nearly two dozen other states on Wednesday filed suit against the Trump administration, arguing that its decision to weaken fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks puts the public’s health at risk and is based on flawed science.

The lawsuit is the latest step in an escalating battle between the administration and Democratic state attorneys general, who have used the courts to push back against the president’s agenda of diluting environmental regulations in order to bolster the economy.

The outcome is likely to be decided by the Supreme Court and could have serious consequences for California and the 13 other states that have embraced tougher car pollution standards than those set by the federal government.


Joined by 22 other states, the District of Columbia, Los Angeles and other cities, California’s lawsuit says that the new rule from the Environmental Protection Agency and Transportation Department, dubbed the Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient (SAFE) Vehicle rule, is unlawful and rests on an error-ridden analysis concocted to justify the administration’s desired outcome.

“The Trump Administration says this rule will save money and save lives, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth,” California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra said in a statement. “Just read the text of the rule. The fact is the so-called ‘SAFE’ rule is a job-killer and public health hazard.”

The EPA and the Transportation Department declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing a policy of not discussing pending litigation.

According to Becerra’s office, this lawsuit is the 82nd filed by California against the Trump administration. More than half of the suits have targeted Trump’s efforts to dismantle major climate and environmental policies. Though most of those cases are still making their way through the courts, a Becerra representative said the state had racked up 21 environmental wins, including a number of preliminary injunctions that stopped the administration’s actions until a court could rule on them.

Trump’s rule replaces the Obama-era mandate that required automakers to increase fuel economy across their fleets by 5% annually. Instead, car manufacturers will only have to improve their performance by 1.5% a year. Rather than being required to produce cars that reach an average of 54 miles per gallon by 2025, the bar will be lowered to 40 mpg by 2026.

One of the beneficiaries of the new rule is the nation’s oil industry. According to the administration’s own analysis, American drivers operating less efficient cars are expected to burn an additional 78 billion gallons of fuel, resulting in nearly 900 million more tons of carbon dioxide being released.


These figures have alarmed environmentalists and public health advocates, who have said that the change, if it is upheld by the courts, will likely contribute to thousands of premature deaths and asthma attacks. A coalition of nonprofit environmental advocacy groups also filed a legal challenge to the new rule on Wednesday.

“This rollback will result in billions of tons of additional emissions of the heat-trapping gases that cause global warming, making the already difficult problem of climate change much harder to solve,” said Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, which joined the lawsuit against the administration.

Citing internal EPA documents that surfaced in recent weeks detailing objections to the new rule by the agency’s own staff, Becerra said the rollback would be more damaging to the climate and public health and costlier to consumers than the existing standards.

“You hate to use the word ‘lie’ with this administration more than necessary because it looks like we’re just overusing it, but they are clearly inflating and misrepresenting what their rule does,” Becerra said. “And I can say that pretty matter-of-factly, because their own internal experts are the ones that are saying that.”

Consumer advocacy groups have also criticized the administration’s claims that the new rule will improve the economy and benefit drivers by lowering the cost of new cars.

The government’s analysis shows that, while loosening fuel-economy standards could shave about $1,000 off the price of a car, drivers would have to buy more gasoline than they would have under the previous rule, negating any cost-savings.

And while the administration has said that the rollback could save automakers as much as $100 million over the lifetimes of the vehicles built under the rule, its analysis also showed that the change could hurt the industry. Encouraged to abandon or slow investments in fuel-saving technology, U.S.-based car companies could become less competitive in overseas markets that have stricter emissions standards, resulting in the loss of thousands of American jobs.

The new standards will apply nationwide. Although California has historically set its own tougher car pollution rules, the Trump administration last year moved to strip the state of that authority. California and many of the other states that have adopted its clean-car standards have sued the administration over this change, and that issue probably won’t be resolved until next year.