Biden administration proposes restoring California’s right to set car pollution rules

Cars pack a Los Angeles freeway in 2019.
A rule change would restore California’s authority to set greenhouse gas emission standards for cars and SUVs.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The Transportation Department announced Thursday it was withdrawing part of a Trump-era rule that blocked states from setting their own tough car pollution standards, setting the stage for a return of broader power to California to fight climate change.

The newly proposed rule change, which will be subject to a 30-day comment period, would restore California’s authority to set greenhouse gas emission standards for cars and SUVs, and to require car companies to sell more electric vehicles.

The agency’s action Thursday is a precursor to the Biden administration’s plan to return even greater authority to California in the form of a legal waiver granted by the Obama administration under the 1970 Clean Air Act. The waiver had allowed the state to set stricter auto emission rules than the federal government and had been granted under every presidential administration except George W. Bush. That power was widely considered one of the state’s most effective weapons in the fight against climate change and air pollution.


The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to begin taking steps to reinstate the waiver next week. The state’s special authority dates to the 1960s, when state officials acknowledged the smog enveloping Southern California as a public health crisis. By the time the federal government began to take an interest in enacting tailpipe emissions controls, California had already taken the lead.

Trump revoked California’s waiver in 2019 shortly before his administration issued a new set of fuel economy and emissions rules that were significantly weaker than the Obama standards. The change also affected the District of Columbia and the 13 states that follow California’s tighter standards.

Trump’s EPA plans to revoke a waiver that has empowered California to set tougher auto pollution standards than those required by the U.S. government.

Sept. 17, 2019

California and nearly two dozen other states sued the administration, challenging the decision. Major auto manufacturers, including General Motors, Fiat Chrysler and Toyota joined the lawsuit on Trump’s side in an effort to block the state’s tough fuel economy rules. They quickly abandoned the cause after Biden was elected.

“The Trump administration should never have challenged California’s legal authority to set our own vehicle emission standards,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in a statement. “The Clean Air Act clearly gives us the right to protect the air Californians breathe and I want to thank the Biden administration for dropping this frivolous challenge.”