WASHINGTON — The Trump administration plans to revoke California’s right to set stricter air pollution standards for cars and light trucks, according to two senior administration officials, as part of a larger effort to weaken an Obama-era climate policy aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions from the nation’s auto fleet.

The move sets up another legal clash between the federal government and the nation’s most populous state, which for decades under administrations of both major political parties exercised authority to put in place more stringent fuel economy standards. Thirteen states, including Maine, and the District of Columbia have vowed to adopt California’s standards if they diverge from the federal government’s, as have several major automakers.

It’s the latest in a series of high-profile conflicts for a state accustomed to ridicule from President Trump, including legal fights over immigration, education, health care and the environment.

It also has extended to personal attacks from the president. Trump has called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, a “nasty, vindictive, horrible person.” He has blamed Democratic state officials for “mismanagement” of forests after deadly wildfires destroyed thousands of homes and killed dozens of Californians. More recently, he has criticized the state for the handling of its homelessness crisis and threatened to intervene.

Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Transportation Department proposed taking away the waiver that California received under the Obama administration to set tailpipe emissions for cars and pickup trucks, as part of a rule that would freeze mileage standards for these vehicles at roughly 37 miles per gallon from 2020 to 2026. The Obama-era standards had required these fleets to average nearly 51 mpg by model year 2025.

In July, California forged an agreement with four companies – Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW of North America – under which they pledged to produce fleets averaging nearly 50 mpg by model year 2026.

Maine is one of the 13 states that have adopted California’s stricter emissions requirements for new cars and trucks. The California standards have been in effect for new vehicles sold in Maine since 2001.

When the Trump administration first announced its plan to ease motor vehicle emissions standards in August 2018, Gov. Janet Mills, who was then Maine’s attorney general, joined with her counterparts in more than a dozen states to denounce the proposal and vow to fight the changes in court.

One of the central arguments in the White House’s proposal – according to the two senior administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the announcement was not yet public – is that the 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act gives only the federal government the right to set fuel economy standards.

By seeking to strip California of its autonomy to set stricter standards, Trump officials are forcing auto companies to choose whether they will side with California or the federal government. As part of July’s deal with the California Air Resources Board, the four carmakers agreed to support the state’s right to set its own tailpipe standards.

The EPA declined to comment on the matter Tuesday. But in a speech to the National Automobile Dealers Association, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler made his intentions clear.

“We embrace federalism and the role of the states, but federalism does not mean that one state can dictate standards for the nation,” he said.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra vowed to sue over the administration’s plan to revoke California’s long-standing waiver, saying the state’s clean car standards are “achievable, science-based and a boon for hard-working American families and public health.”

The state’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, added that the Trump plan “could have devastating consequences for our kids’ health and the air we breathe, if California were to roll over. But we will not – we will fight this latest attempt and defend our clean car standards. California, global markets and Mother Nature will prevail.”

Environmentalists promised to join California in its legal opposition.

“There’s nothing in the Clean Air Act or EPA regulations providing for this unprecedented action,” Martha Roberts, a senior attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund, said in an interview. “The legislative history is explicit about broad authority for California. This is very well established legal authority that’s firmly anchored in the Clean Air Act.”

Marlo Lewis, a senior fellow at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, said in an interview that the move could make it easier for automakers to embrace the White House’s proposed rollback of gas mileage standards.

“The only reason the automakers are not on board with Trump is because they’re afraid of the retaliation from California if Trump loses,” Lewis said. “The Trump administration really has to kick the bully off the playing field, and then the automakers will start talking more sensibly.”

It is unclear who would prevail in a legal fight over California’s right to set tailpipe emissions. The state’s air regulators have consistently argued that they are limiting carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles, rather than overtly setting mileage standards.

Margo Oge, who led the EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality from 1994 to 2012, said in an interview that California can make a strong case that it needs to curb these pollutants because climate change worsens ozone, which helps create smog.

“California has demonstrated that by getting a greenhouse gas emissions waiver, it can also reduce ozone pollution, because the data is very strong,” she said.

But even Obama administration officials acknowledged that efforts to curb CO2 emissions from autos are inextricably linked to stricter mileage standards. The 2010 rule published by the EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration noted that nearly 95 percent of emissions from cars and light trucks stem from motor fuel combustion.

Auto industry officials said they continue to hope that federal and state officials can find compromise on a single national standard, despite no evidence of a deal in sight.

“Automakers have said many times that we support year-over-year increases in fuel economy standards that align with marketplace realities,” said Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, “and we support one national program as the best path to preserve good auto jobs and keep new vehicles affordable for more Americans.”

In an interview with The Washington Post last week, Wheeler said the Trump administration plans to separately finalize scaled-back mileage standards for the nation’s autos by the end of the year. He said he remains optimistic that the industry will embrace the latest version of the rollback. “I’m still hopeful that people will see that the changes we made from the proposal to the final (rule), that everyone would get on board and be supportive of what we’re doing,” Wheeler said.

California’s long-standing ability to write its own emissions standards has seldom been questioned in Washington. In part, that’s because of the history that led to the state’s unique authority.

Smog in Los Angeles had become crippling at times throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s. As scientists focused on motor vehicle exhausts as a key culprit in air pollution, state officials worked to develop the nation’s first vehicle emissions standards in 1966.

The following year, the state’s new Republican governor, Ronald Reagan, established the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to undertake a statewide effort to address widespread air pollution.

As it crafted landmark clean-air legislation for the country, Congress granted California special status, saying the state could request a “waiver” to require stricter tailpipe standards if it provided a compelling reason that such regulations were needed. The auto industry, then as now, expressed concern over the idea of having to meet different standards in different states, but California eventually prevailed.

Congress has repeatedly reaffirmed that right. And in 1977, lawmakers said other states could legally adopt California’s stricter car emissions standards.

Emissions control strategies first adopted by California – catalytic converters, oxides of nitrogen (NOX) regulations and “check engine” systems, to name a few – have become standard across the country.

Over the decades, the EPA has consistently approved waivers for California. The state has applied for and received more than 130 waivers over the past 50 years, according to CARB.

In late 2007, the George W. Bush administration denied California a waiver on the grounds that capping carbon dioxide emissions did not address a specific air pollution problem for the state. The move went against the advice of some agency staffers.

“The Bush administration is moving forward with a clear national solution, not a confusing patchwork of state rules, to reduce America’s climate footprint from vehicles,” Stephen Johnson, the EPA’s then-administrator, said at the time.

California, along with other states, challenged the denial in court. In July 2009, after President Barack Obama took office, the EPA granted the state its waiver.


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