Cars make their way toward downtown L.A. during the morning commute on April 22, 2021 in Los Angeles, California.
Mario Tama | Getty Images
The Biden administration is restoring California’s authority to set its own rules on greenhouse gas emissions from cars, pickups and SUVs, a move that rolls back a Trump-era decision and puts California at the forefront of combatting climate change in the U.S.
The decision reinstates a Clean Air Act waiver that allows California to adopt stronger fuel economy standards than those of the federal government and set the precedent for the rest of the country on how to mitigate vehicle emissions. The state’s past ability to control vehicle emissions led to some innovative strategies in the auto industry, such as catalytic converters, which convert toxic gases and pollutants in exhaust gas into less-toxic pollutants, as well as “check engine” lights.
The transportation sector is a major source of greenhouse gases in the U.S., representing 29% of the country’s emissions. California, the country’s most populous state, is home to a slew of congested freeways that spew carbon pollution into the atmosphere and create smog-filled skies over cities such as Los Angeles.
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have adopted California’s tighter standards. The California Air Resources Board will determine how to enforce them.
Under the Clean Air Act, the state has the ability to receive permission from the federal government to set its own rules on tailpipe standards that help lower emissions from gas-powered vehicles. California established the first tailpipe emissions standards in the country in 1966.
The Trump administration in 2019 revoked California’s authority to regulate its own air quality, arguing that it wouldn’t allow “political agendas in a single state” to set national policy. That decision was part of a broader rollback of Obama-era vehicle emissions standards and climate change regulations.
“Today we proudly reaffirm California’s longstanding authority to lead in addressing pollution from cars and trucks,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said 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,” Regan said.
“When you clear a traffic jam, the first thing you do is take your foot off the brake,” said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., who is also the chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. “That’s exactly what the Biden administration is doing by reinstating California’s long-standing authority under the Clean Air Act to set tailpipe standards.”
Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Frank Pallone said in a statement that the Biden administration’s decision reverses one of Trump’s “most absurd and indefensible actions.”
“Today’s action is a win for everyone since the waiver helps states improve air quality for communities across the country, spurs American innovation of clean vehicle technology, and ensures that consumers have access to the most advanced and efficient vehicles possible,” Pallone said.
The Biden administration’s decision will also help California move toward its goal of phasing out all new gas-powered passenger cars and trucks by 2035.
Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the pledge in 2020, saying it would cut the state’s emissions by 35%. California also has rules requiring a certain percentage of new vehicle sales to be electric or zero-emissions.
“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,” Newsom said in a statement.
Newsom said the decision also “comes at a pivotal moment underscoring the need to end our reliance on fossil fuels.”
Environmental groups on Wednesday strongly praised the EPA’s decision to reinstate the Clean Air Act waiver.
Michelle Robinson, director of the Clean Transportation Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said Trump’s reversal relied on a “deeply flawed understanding of the law and thwarted the ability of states to take important steps toward limiting carbon emissions.”
“Today’s reinstatement of the waiver is an important milestone in the fight to preserve critical environmental regulations undone by the Trump administration,” Robinson said.
Luke Tonachel, director for clean vehicles and fuels at Natural Resources Defense Council, said that states have led the movement to clean up tailpipe pollution and move the country towards cleaner vehicles.
“While the previous administration tried to undermine this authority, the law clearly gives California and other states the ability to adopt standards to curb the pollution affecting the health of their citizens,” Tonachel said. “Reaffirming this legal authority will protect public health and help address the climate crisis.”