The EPA Is Rolling Back California Emissions Standards — Here’s Why That Matters

California, the joke goes, is basically its own country. With roughly 10 percent of the total population of the U.S., the Golden State is home to three of the nation’s 10 largest cities, 53 representatives in the House of Representatives, and a state government that often holds the power to effect change on a federal level. Take, for example, California’s stringent vehicle emissions standards — which are stricter than federal requirements and have essentially strong-armed car manufacturers into making more environmentally-friendly vehicles.

But if the Trump administration has its way, those standards may soon be a thing of the past. According to both CNN and Reuters, the Environmental Protection Agency along with National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (under the direction of the President) has moved to revoke California’s right to set emissions standards as part of a larger push to roll back Obama-era emissions standards.

The rule, if enacted, will “bar California from setting fuel efficiency standards or requiring zero-emission vehicles” from manufacturers, which could have far-reaching consequences not just for the state of California but for the entire U.S. Here’s why.

What is the California emissions standard?

In order to understand the California emissions standard, you need a little background. California is a driving culture — and has been pretty much since the invention of the automobile. As a result of that culture, air pollution (specifically: smog) was a problem for the state, and especially for Los Angeles, as far back as the 1940s. This, of course, means that the state was fighting air pollution in radical ways long before most of us were even born. In fact, “In 1966 California established the first tailpipe emissions standards in the nation.”

In 1967, under then-Governor Ronald Reagan, the state created the California Air Resources Board (CARB). Combined with that year’s Clean Air Act, which gave the state the ability to set their own air pollution rules, California’s ability to effect change on a national level started to take off. California established the country’s first NOx (nitrogen oxide) emissions standards in 1971. Fast forward to 1990, when they approved a “Zero-Emission Vehicle (ZEV) regulation (1990) that requires manufacturers to produce an increasing number of ZEVs.” Then, in 2004, CARB also approved greenhouse gas emissions standards for cars. It is, in other words, a boundary-pushing, environmentally-friendly government body that often sets the tone for the rest of the nation when it comes to curbing harmful emissions.

In terms of the actual emissions standards, here’s what California requires:

  • Starting with model year 2015, light-duty vehicles must meet LEV III standards, which means “tighter emission standards for hydrocarbons, CO, and NOx, LEV III and the Tier 3 regulations tighten emission standards for particulates and evaporative emissions.” In plain English: fewer greenhouse gas emissions and fewer NOx (nitrogen oxide) and other smog-causing emissions.
  • Starting with model year 2017, light-duty vehicles must decrease GHG rates 4.5 percent per year for cars and 4.9 percent per year for trucks through 2025.
  • Heavy duty emissions standards are the same as federal regulations, but California requires “additional testing, stricter emissions limits for public buses, and optional heightened NOx standards for HDVs.”

These requirements are stricter than current federal regulations set by the EPA, which means that a secondary car market — California-certified cars — has emerged.

How does this standard affect people outside of California?

California accounts for about 12 percent of national auto sales. This, of course, means their standards have an outsized impact on what car manufacturers make in order to stay competitive in such a large market. There are California-certified vehicles and what are referred to as 49-state vehicles. But now that 15 states have followed in California’s footsteps — including New York, which has the fourth largest population in the U.S., and Pennsylvania, the fifth — it’s getting harder and harder to find newly made 49-state vehicles as the share of new vehicles which meet California standards grows.

That means that California’s policy is driving the bus, so to speak, when it comes to determining how fuel efficient (and environmentally friendly) the vehicles the rest of us have access to are. NASA research shows that cars are “officially the largest net contributor of climate change pollution in the world,” and so, California is at the forefront of tackling one of the chief contributors to climate change — which is essential in a country where approximately 88 percent of the adult population owns a vehicle.

Why is the Trump administration going after emissions standards?

This decision is also part of a larger push by the Trump administration to roll back regulations on manufacturers and other businesses. But why?

There are several ways to answer this question. The first: Trump has made no secret of his belief that regulations (such as, say, the Borrower Defense Rule, which would have allowed loan forgiveness for students who were misled by for-profit colleges) hurt business and the economy at large.

According to the Financial Times, under the Trump administration, “two regulations are being eliminated for every new one implemented and agencies are required to achieve a net reduction in total regulatory costs.” One area which has been heavily targeted: environmental regulations. According to the New York Times, 85 environmental rules — including California’s emissions standards — are being rolled back or eliminated entirely. Protections for public lands, rules limiting methane pollution, emissions limits for coal power plants: they’re all either on the chopping block or eliminated entirely. (And, sure, while the estimated $2 trillion in annual regulatory costs could certainly do with a significant trim, there’s a difference between eliminating red tape and eliminating essential environmental protections that keep companies from cutting corners and harming consumers.)

So why go after environmental regulations that appear to be consumer protections? There are two rather complicated aspects fueling this push to deregulate, beyond anything to do with the business sector. The first aspect: the current president’s long-standing animosity toward former President Barack Obama, and Trump’s climate change denialism.

While the former has informed the administration’s push to roll back any and all Obama-era directives (from protections for trans youth to redefining sexual harassment in order to narrow the scope of Title IX to eliminating certain Wall Street regulations), the latter has certainly informed decisions like the Department of Agriculture’s alleged repression of climate change research, the country’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, and the recent decision to cut a rule regulating how much methane (an extremely powerful greenhouse gas) oil and gas companies can produce.

What does this mean for the future of emissions standards in the U.S.?

Well, for California, it could potentially “stymie the downward trend in California’s air pollution.” And while “[t]he plan would not revoke California’s ability to set low-emission vehicle standards that has been in place since 1990,” it would revoke California’s ability to require manufacturers to make a certain number of zero-emission vehicles. Low- and zero-emission vehicles are such a small part of the market that taking away California’s ability to set standards on all vehicles could kneecap environmental progress in the auto industry. It would also take away the ability for other states to follow California’s lead, meaning lower standards in several key auto markets.

This is also part of a larger push to lower emissions standards across the industry, which the Obama administration set at a historic high in 2012. Under Obama-era rules, manufacturers would have been required to increase fuel standards to the “equivalent of 54.5 mpg for cars and light-duty trucks by Model Year 2025.”

According to White House officials, the administration’s “final regulation will include a modest boost in annual efficiency requirements but far less than what the Obama administration had set in 2012.”

That means the following could happen:

  • There will be two different car markets, which, of course, we’ve seen before. But as we’ve also seen with the natural progression away from 49-state cars, the automotive industry would eventually trend toward what states have enacted, meaning there would likely be a trend towards more wasteful emissions cars.
  • Thanks to lower overall emissions standards across the country, this would likely stymy low-emission and zero-emission vehicle production, leading to more low-efficiency cars on the road, thus contributing to climate change.

Does this seem like the sort of short-sighted decision that sacrifices longterm damage to the environment for corporate profits? Yes. But that also seems perfectly consistent with the man behind these decisions.