Trump’s EPA moves to accelerate clash with California over clean car standards

Trump administration officials formally revoked California’s unique authority to restrict car pollution on Thursday, a move they hope will speed up an impending legal clash and potentially allow them to defend the policy in federal court during President Donald Trump’s first term.

“This rule will be able to be challenged in court on its own and we can accelerate the timetable for getting a definitive final judgment from the courts,” Department of Transportation (DOT) General Counsel Stephen Bradbury said at a press conference on Thursday.

The timing is critical, given the looming presidential election. Should a Democrat defeat Trump in 2020, they would undoubtedly drop the challenge against California.

California’s Democratic leaders have already promised to sue to protect their waiver authority, granted under the Clean Air Act of 1970. Thirteen other states and the District of Columbia have followed California’s lead in setting emissions standards that are stricter than federal government requirements. In 2012, those states reached a deal with the Obama administration to set new, stricter national standards through 2025.

The Trump administration is in the process of rewriting those regulations now, but the release of that new rule, initially expected this summer, has been delayed.

At Thursday morning’s press conference in Washington, D.C.. administration officials portrayed the move against California as the first step in their broader effort to roll back the Obama-era rule.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao argued that regulation, which required a dramatic increase in fuel economy standards for cars and light truck, would “force automakers to spend billions of dollars developing cars that consumers do not want to buy or drive.”

Withdrawing the waiver, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler said, “sets the stage for President Trump’s ultimate objective, a final SAFE rule,” as the proposed Trump rollback of emissions standards has been dubbed. “It’s time to put California’s waiver back in its box, a box that Congress always intended it to stay in.”

Specifically, the Department of Transportation has determined that the Energy Policy Safety Act preempts California’s authority to require more aggressive limits on tailpipe emissions as well as its zero-emissions vehicle program.

“Separate and apart from that, EPA is withdrawing the waiver based on our interpretation and application of” the Clean Air Act, which granted California special status given its grave air pollution problem late last century. Wheeler argued the state no longer faces such “compelling and extraordinary conditions.”

Wheeler and Chao did, however, slam the state for having “the worst air quality in the country.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom responded preemptively to the Trump administration announcement, saying in a prepared statement Wednesday that “California won’t ever wait for permission from Washington to protect the health and safety of children and families.”

“We will fight this latest attempt and defend our clean car standards,” Newsom promised.

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In California alone, vehicle pollution represents 40 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted, the state says.

The California Air Resources Board inked a deal in July with four carmakers, representing roughly a third of all auto sales in the country, to to reduce carbon emissions at a far swifter rate than the Trump administration wants. The deal represents a compromise on the original Obama standards by giving the automakers an extra year, until 2026, to meet the climate change targets.

The move reportedly enraged President Trump, who has sought to punish the four carmakers — Ford, Honda, BMW and Volkswagen — who are party to the agreement and deter others from joining. Earlier this month, the Justice Department announced it was launching an anti-trust investigation against the four companies. And attorneys from the EPA and DOT sent a letter to California Air Resources Board Chairman Mary Nichols asserting the state’s deal with automakers appears to be “unlawful and invalid.”

Trump confirmed the move to revoke California’s waiver authority in a pair of tweets Wednesday — while on a two-day fundraising swing through the state — saying “Automakers should seize this opportunity because without this alternative to California, you will be out of business.”

California officials, and the manufacturers that have agreed to the state’s greenhouse gas regulations, showed little signs of backing off, however.

One day after Newsom vowed to sue the Trump administration, the California Air Resources Board prepared to meet in Sacramento to flesh out the details of the agreement with the four automakers.

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for Ford Motor Co., one of the four companies that made the deal with California, said the company has no plans to deviate from the state pact. The spokeswoman, Rachel McCleery, referred a reporter to a set of deal terms announced in July in which all four companies recognized California’s legal authority to create its own standards.

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It’s just one more flash point in the long-running feud between Trump and California’s elected leaders since the early days of his administration. Trump also slammed the state for its rising rate of homelessness during his visit there.

On the return flight Wednesday night, Trump said the EPA would be notifying San Francisco of environmental violations related to its homeless population in “less than a week.”

“There’s tremendous pollution being put into the ocean because they’re going through what’s called the storm sewer that’s for rainwater,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One. “You know there are needles, there are other things.”

“They have to clean it up. We can’t have our cities going to hell,” the president added.

Asked about the president’s remarks on Thursday morning, Wheeler said only, “I can’t comment on potential enforcement actions.”

Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and writes the Impact2020 newsletter. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.