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Pruitt’s Hazy Plans to Weaken Car Pollution Standards Won’t Work. Here’s Why.
Earthjustice attorney Paul Cort explains why Trump’s EPA chief would be careening way outside his lane if he tries to undo a key provision of the 1970 landmark Clean Air Act.
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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.
Graphic by Rob Chambliss / Earthjustice
Graphic by Rob Chambliss / Earthjustice

May 9, 2018

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. The federal government sets standards on how much air pollution cars and trucks can emit under the 1970 Clean Air Act

Pruitt would rather force everyone to breathe the same higher levels of pollution. Who benefits? The oil industry. Who’s harmed? 113 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.

1. Pruitt’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. California passed the country’s first tailpipe regulations a decade earlier in 1960 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 current waiver for California’s low emission vehicle standards met the three conditions when it was approved in 2009. Thirteen other states adopted California’s standards under Section 177 of the Clean Air Act.

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2. No 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, Pruitt would be trying to revoke an already-approved waiver. No administration has tried to outright revoke a state waiver.

Press reports indicate that the EPA might attempt to build a legal argument that Congress silently took away California’s authority through other laws. 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.

The health of 113 million Americans could be negatively impacted if the administration succeeds in revoking the Clean Air Act waiver to 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.

When Pruitt talks of throwing the waiver rules into reverse, he’s threatening the engine of progress on healthier air across the country. When California uses the waiver to set stricter vehicle emissions standards, other states voluntarily follow. Currently, 13 other states join California in setting stricter controls on this form of air pollution.

If the administration succeeds in undermining the waiver, the ability of these states to protect their residents would be overruled.

Additionally, the transportation sector is now the No. 1 source of greenhouse-gas emissions in the United States. State governments that recognize climate pollution as an existential threat would be prevented from using a key tool to act faster to save the planet.

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

Leaked plans from the EPA indicated that Pruitt would take action against the state waiver as soon as May. It’s possible that after more carefully reviewing the law, the administration will wisely decide that there is no legal path to revoking the waiver.

However, if Pruitt persists, 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.

Earthjustice has filed 91 lawsuits so far 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 Pruitt’s reckless decisions at the EPA. We have won most of the cases that have been decided so far.

Your voice is needed.

Tell your elected officials that Scott Pruitt’s utter disregard for the mission of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and ethical breaches make him unfit to lead the agency.

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