Biden mulls restoring California's authority to fight car pollution

The 2019 decision to revoke the state’s waiver to enforce its greenhouse gas pollution standards for cars and trucks

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President Joe Biden is taking a key step toward restoring California’s ability to set its own limits on air pollution, overturning a move made by former President Donald Trump to undo the state's authority to set stricter regulations on auto emissions.

The Environmental Protection Agency said on Monday it is "seeking public input on its reconsideration of the Agency’s 2019 action titled The Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient Vehicles Rule Part One: One National Program Rule (SAFE-1) for the purposes of rescinding the action taken by the prior administration."

In a statement released Monday, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said: “I am a firm believer in California’s long-standing statutory authority to lead. The 2019 decision to revoke the state’s waiver to enforce its greenhouse gas pollution standards for cars and trucks was legally dubious and an attack on the public’s health and wellbeing."

California has long had the authority to regulate three key automotive emissions — carbon monoxide, particulates and oxides of nitrogen — and set stricter standards than those covering the rest of the country. Under former President Barack Obama, the state was given additional authority to set mandates for greenhouse gas emissions.

Since the production of CO2 is directly related to fuel consumption, the tight guidelines set by the California Air Resources Board would force a dramatic shift towards electrified vehicles, especially those running entirely on battery power or on hydrogen.

In September 2019, Trump announced his administration would overturn the waiver and also moved to roll back the Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards set under Obama.

Both moves have been tied up in court since then. Biden administration officials said Monday that eliminating the California waiver “exceeded” the authority of the prior president.

The announcement comes after Biden’s proposal to halve CO2 emissions in the U.S. by 2030. A key part of that effort will be the promotion of renewable energy production and the switch to battery-electric vehicles. The American Jobs Plan would set aside $174 billion for BEVs, with much of that going to create a nationwide network of 500,000 EV charging stations.

California is far and away the largest market for electrified vehicles, especially BEVs, and Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed an executive order that would begin phasing out the sale of both retail and commercial vehicles that use gas and diesel engines.

As big as it is, California has an even more outsized impact on the auto industry as 13 other states have adopted its emissions rules. All told, they represent about 40 percent of annual U.S. new vehicle sales.

The Trump administration’s attempt to strip California’s authority to regulate CO2 emissions was backed by a number of automakers, including General Motors and Toyota, who argued that a single national standard was needed. Four companies, BMW, Ford, Honda and Volkswagen, backed the state and subsequently reached a emissions compromise plan. GM reversed course after the November 2020 presidential election and also accepted the new agreement.

The Biden administration has signaled it will announce an updated CAFE target in the coming months. Many analysts expect a new approach that could strike a balance between the EPA and California targets.

Last week, 12 U.S. governors sent a letter calling on the Biden administration to set a phased-in ban on sales of internal combustion vehicles by 2035. California, Massachusetts and Washington have already put bans on the books.