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The Trump Administration’s Hazy Plans to Weaken Car Pollution Standards Won’t Work. Here’s Why.
Earthjustice attorney Paul Cort explains why Trump’s EPA chief is careening way outside his lane in trying to undo a key provision of the 1970 landmark Clean Air Act.
Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency has signaled it will try to stop states from leading efforts to clean up our air.
Graphic by Rob Chambliss / Earthjustice
Graphic by Rob Chambliss / Earthjustice

Originally Published May 27, 2020

The future of the nation’s clean car protections is on the table, and Andrew Wheeler, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is moving forward with a plan that will unleash tailpipe pollution across the country.

Update: Jan. 20, 2021 On his first day in office, President Biden signed an executive order that directs agencies to consider revising vehicle fuel efficiency and emissions standards, after the Trump administration weakened them.

The Trump administration would rather force everyone to breathe the same higher levels of pollution. Who benefits? The oil industry. Who’s harmed? More than a hundred million Americans who live in states that set higher expectations for their air.

Fortunately, the law in this case is long established and sits squarely behind the people, not the polluters.

Representing Sierra Club, Earthjustice sued the EPA and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in separate lawsuits in the D.C. Court of Appeals for the illegal rollback of clean car and fuel economy standards. The Trump administration’s rule is based on massive technical and economic errors — and fails to meet core legal requirements.

On Mar. 31, the Trump administration finalized rules to weaken greenhouse gas and fuel economy standards for new cars and light trucks. This comes despite opposition from automakers, 18 states, and the District of Columbia, and a coalition of cities and counties across the country. The Obama-era clean car standards had been slated to create approximately 650,000 jobs, save consumers about $50 billion in 2030, and reduce climate pollution by 280 million metric tons in 2030.

The lawsuit follows legal action filed late last year challenging EPA's revocation of California’s waiver for its greenhouse gas emission standards for new motor vehicles, as well as the state’s zero emission vehicle standards.

The Trump administration is rolling back clean car standards and, strikingly, is trying to stop states from leading efforts to clean up our air through vehicle emissions protections. That’s important because while the federal government sets standards on how much air pollution cars and trucks can emit under the 1970 Clean Air Act, a provision of the law allows states to set more protective standards.

1. The administration’s plans are absurd, legally speaking.

The Clean Air Act of 1970 expressly gives California the authority to set emission standards for cars and trucks. The provision has been in place for nearly half a century.

Congress wrote these provisions into the law because California was already way ahead of the federal government in tackling smog. In fact, California's regulation of tailpipe emissions predates the creation of the U.S. EPA. California passed the country’s first tailpipe regulations in 1966 in response to its notorious smog problems that at times cut visibility down to three city blocks in Los Angeles, soured the air with the smell of bleach, and stung people’s eyes. The leaders of the post-War era brought us out of this brown-and-orange haze with sensible rules of the road for automakers, with California setting the pace.

To require manufacturers to go beyond federal standards, California need only meet three conditions:

  1. The state must show necessity for stricter standards.
  2. It must show that the state standards are at least as stringent as the federal ones.
  3. The state must show that the regulations are otherwise consistent with federal standards.

If these basic conditions are met, EPA must “waive” federal preemption and allow the California standards. The EPA has consistently concluded that California’s low emission vehicle standards meet the three conditions, including state standards to control greenhouse gas emissions. The EPA approved the waiver for California’s current Advanced Clean Car standards in 2013. Under the Clean Air Act, other states can opt in to California’s more protective standards.

Twelve other states, and the District of Columbia, adopted California’s greenhouse gas standards under Section 177 of the Clean Air Act: Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maine, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington. Ten states (Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont) have adopted California’s zero emissions vehicle standards that set goals for the percentage of electric cars sold in a state.

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States that have adopted California's stronger greenhouse gas standards, and zero emissions vehicle standards.
Map of states that have adopted California's stronger greenhouse gas standards and zero emissions vehicle standards.


















































2. No other administration has tried this, for a reason.

In the 2000s, the Bush administration tried to deny a waiver application on the grounds that it wasn’t necessary, but the administration ultimately failed in that fight.

In this case, Wheeler is trying to revoke an already-approved waiver. No administration has tried to outright revoke a state waiver until now.

In addition, the Trump administration is claiming that even though the Clean Air Act allows California to adopt vehicle emission standards, another law — the Energy Policy and Conservation Act — silently took away much of California’s authority. This is not a winning argument.

In many legal disputes, courts will defer to agency legal interpretations where the law is unclear. But in the case of preempting state authority to protect the health and welfare of its residents, agencies do not get that deference. Add to that Congress’s explicit protection of California’s authority, and the lawyers at EPA are holding a losing hand.

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Documerica photos from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency showcase the choking smog problems the country faced, and early attempts to put cleaner cars on the roads in the 1970s.
Scott Pruitt, Trump’s embattled head of the Environmental Protection Agency, has signaled he will try to stop states from leading efforts to clean up our air.
Photos by Tomas Sennett, Bill Gillette, Lyntha Scott Eiler
From top left: May 1972: Smog over Humboldt Bay-Eureka in California. June 1972: Experimental wind tunnel device built at Colorado State University. Smoke is piped into a model of the city of Houston, allowing scientists to study the effect of city layout on velocity and direction of smog dispersion. Sept. 1975: Mechanic adjusts the engine for a vehicle that failed the emissions test in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio. Aug. 1975: Children watch as their car is tested at an auto emission inspection station in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio.
3. Vehicle emissions drive health problems and climate pollution.

By trashing the country’s national standards and throwing states’ authority into reverse, the Trump administration is preparing to unleash a staggering dose of climate pollution.

If Trump's proposed rollback stands, in 2030, cars will pump an additional 120 million metric tons of climate-disrupting pollution into our atmosphere. It will be the pollution equivalent of firing up 30 coal-fired power plants. This pollution toll will mushroom — in the year 2040, it would be the equivalent of 43 coal-fired power plants. State governments that recognize climate pollution as an existential threat would lose a key tool to act for their communities.

The health of over a hundred million Americans could be hurt if the administration succeeds in revoking the Clean Air Act waiver for those states opting for stricter standards.

Vehicles are the main source of dangerous forms of air pollution, including ozone — a key factor in asthma and bronchitis — and particulate matter, which is blamed for up to 30,000 premature deaths each year. They are also the main source of localized pollution problems such as nitrogen dioxide, which primarily affects those communities, often low-income or communities of color, that border major roads and freeways.

On top of the health and climate impacts, everyday Americans can expect to feel the economic sting of this rollback if it stands. In 2025, Americans will pay an extra $17 billion at the gas pump while the oil industry reaps its rewards. In 2040, American consumers will pay an eye-popping $55 billion extra at the pump. The nation’s clean car standards are expected to create 250,000 jobs nationwide — President Trump’s action could cut that in half.

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4. Revoking the waiver will meet a wave of resistance.

The Trump administration’s proposed new clean car standards are misleadingly written with a focus on safety issues that spin scientific data. But states and the American people won’t be misled. We know that unleashing tailpipe pollution is bad for our air, our economy and our future.

A public comment period and hearings on this new rule will begin later this summer. We will keep you informed on ways to stay active in protecting our clean car standards.

Expect to see strong pushback from environmental organizations including Earthjustice, California’s attorney general and Air Resources Board, and the 13 states that have adopted the stricter standards. In the face of the administration’s threats, Colorado’s governor has already announced the state will refuse to use Trump’s weaker vehicle emissions standards, and instead opt in to California’s vehicle emissions standards.

The 12 groups that joined together to file the lawsuits on May 27 challenging the Trump administration for gutting clean car standards are: Center for Biological Diversity, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Communities for a Better Environment, Conservation Law Foundation, Consumer Federation of America, Environment America, Environmental Defense Fund, Environmental Law and Policy Center, NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), Public Citizen, Inc., Sierra Club and Union of Concerned Scientists. Earthjustice is representing Sierra Club.

Earthjustice has filed more than 130 lawsuits to protect clean air, clean water, public land and endangered wildlife from the Trump administration's anti-environmental actions. Many of these lawsuits are challenging reckless decisions at the EPA. We have won most of the cases that have been decided so far.