Back in the 1960s and 1970s, California’s air was choked with smog, much of it due to pollution coming out of cars idling on the state’s many freeways. To address the problem, state officials developed environmental regulations that were more conservation-minded than the national ones set by the federal government, particularly when it came to limiting emissions from cars. Those standards have significantly reduced pollution in California over the last 40 years–but this week, the Trump administration decided to revoke the state’s legal authority to set its own environmental policies.
That authority comes in the form of a waiver, drawn up by the feds in 1968. It stated that the state could require auto makers and industry to meet cleaner standards than those set for the rest of the country. Once that waiver existed, 12 states and the District of Columbia also opted-in to use the California standards. Because California and the 13 other jurisdictions constitute a major chunk of the American auto market, most car companies eventually decided it was in their financial interest to build cars that met the California standards, rather than continue making less eco-friendly cars to sell in the other 37 states.
While that arrangement occasionally elicited grumbles from auto makers, energy companies, and others, it has remained the law of the land for decades. And it pretty much had the intended results. One recent study found that if all 50 states had signed on for California’s standards in 1975, the overall greenhouse gas levels in the country would be 25 percent lower than they currently are.
But now the Trump administration wants to change that longstanding deal. He has decided to take action to revoke that waiver, and thus revoke the state’s right to self-determine environmental policy. For vehicles, the Trump administration wants to set a target of 37 miles-per-gallon by 2026, the current California target for 2026 is 51 miles-per-gallon.
“We’re ready to fight for a future that you seem unable to comprehend; we’ll see you in court if you stand in our way,” California Attorney General Xaiver Becerra said in a statement about the administration’s announcement. “While the White House clings to the past, automakers and American families embrace cleaner cars.”
Beccera and Governor Gavin Newsom have both repeatedly made clear they intend to dispute the administration’s actions, which Beccera described as having been announced with “no basis and no authority.”
It’s not only the state government that the administration is after. The Department of Justice has also launched an investigation into four different corporations–BMW, Ford, Volkswagen, and Honda–who agreed to a voluntary, industry-led program to develop cars with higher fuel efficiency in collaboration with California officials. They stand accused by the DoJ of conspiracy, and by Trump himself of being “politically correct automobile companies” run by “foolish executives,” according to the President’s Twitter posts.
In more recent Tweets, Trump has stated his attempts to undercut California’s emissions standards will result in cars will be “far safer and much less expensive.” An August investigation by nonprofit consumer advocacy organization Consumer Reports, however, contradicts that assertion. According to that report, “the rollback will cost American consumers an additional $460 billion, which comes out to an added $3,300 per new vehicle, compared to keeping the current standards”–which they describe as having a pocketbook effect on new car buyers equivalent to a gas tax of 63 cents per gallon, “except that instead of that added cost going towards a community improvement project like infrastructure, it goes directly to oil companies.”
There is some dispute on the matter of safety as well. In a 2018 internal memo, William Charmley, the director of assessments and standards for Trump’s own EPA, reported that the roll back in admissions standards might actually increase annual deaths in auto accidents. The “proposed standards are detrimental to safety, rather than beneficial,” he wrote. The Associated Press reported that his office informed the OMB that what Trump is attempting to do with auto emission standards would likely result in the deaths of 17 Americans per year.
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