The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced on Wednesday that they would be dropping a 2019 order known as SAFE-1 that bars California from having their own vehicle emission standards, allowing California and other states to once again have the more stringent standards for vehicles.
For years, especially during the Trump administration, GM, along with Toyota and Fiat Chrysler, sided with the federal government in backing a uniform federal emissions standards rather than states, such as California, having differing, tougher standards. Former President Trump and the EPA attempted to revoke California’s standards in September of 2019, only for former California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to sue the EPA days later. By October 2019, car companies had largely settled on whether they supported the Federal standards or the California standards, leading to many Californian lawmakers to speak out against the brewing battle. The next month, the state halted all purchases of new vehicles from the companies backing the federal standards, costing GM tens of millions in sales.
In December 2019, the Trump administration tried to remove the lawsuit, only for it to be tied up in litigation going into 2020. That September, Governor Gavin Newsom signed an Executive Order phasing out all new gas-powered vehicle sales in California by 2035, further drawing a line in the sand on emissions. However, following President Joe Biden’s victory in November 2020, car makers who had backed the federal order largely shifted plans, instead backing California’s standards as a result in an attempt to possibly regain ground in things like California government vehicle sales.
By January 2022, all car makers had officially backed California’s authority to set new Clean Air Act vehicle emissions standards, leaving only the EPA in the way of returning to the old, state-level decision making. Last month, the EPA began signaling that a waiver to allow California to return to the old system of being allowed to set their own emissions standards would be coming soon, with the agency coming through on that decision Wednesday.
According to the EPA on Wednesday, a 2013 Clean Air Act waiver to allow California to have their own vehicle emissions standards is to be reinstated, along with a prohibition that blocks other states from adopting the Californian policy above the less stringent federal policy.
“Today we proudly reaffirm California’s longstanding authority to lead in addressing pollution from cars and trucks,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan in a statement on Wednesday. “Our partnership with states to confront the climate crisis has never been more important. With today’s action, we reinstate an approach that for years has helped advance clean technologies and cut air pollution for people not just in California, but for the U.S. as a whole.
“The EPA is withdrawing the SAFE-1 interpretation of the Clean Air Act that would prohibit other states from adopting the California emission standards. The waiver granted to California to implement its Advanced Clean Car (ACC) program in 2013 is back in force.”
The return of Californian emissions standards
The California Air Resources Board noted that cars and light trucks will likely remain under the broader EPA federal standards due to the Biden Administration raising those standards since last year. However, the returned California standards will be applied to more heavy duty trucks.
California lawmakers and environmental groups applauded the federal government for finalizing the reversion back to where vehicle emissions policy was at pre-2019 on Wednesday and Thursday. This included Governor Gavin Newsom, who had been one of the main opponents of the Trump administration action back in 2019.
“I thank the Biden Administration for righting the reckless wrongs of the Trump Administration and recognizing our decades-old authority to protect Californians and our planet,” Governor Newsom said in a statement. “The restoration of our state’s Clean Air Act waiver is a major victory for the environment, our economy, and the health of families across the country that comes at a pivotal moment underscoring the need to end our reliance on fossil fuels. California looks forward to partnering with the Biden Administration to make a zero-emission future a reality for all Americans.”
While automakers have been reluctant in the past few years to support the California emissions policy, many auto experts said on Thursday that the action would likely help lead to an increase in electric cars.
“Astronomical gas prices mixed with consumers wanting better car mileage, lowered or non-existent gasoline costs, not wanting Russian natural resources, and better pollution standards is driving a lot right now, no pun intended,” explained Michigan-based auto industry analyst Kevin Pullman to the Globe on Thursday. “Having more stringent emission allowances, even just for larger trucks, will help bring about a quicker transition to electric cars. Right now California wants to do that with electric car sales with that 2035 end of all gas-powered vehicle sales goal still ahead of them. And this is a big part of that. So this is a major win today, with a lot of people not really being for this at least getting a softened blow with the knowledge that this will lead to less Russian imports.”
As of Thursday, the average price for gas in California according to AAA is $5.69 a gallon.
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