On Wednesday morning, Donald Trump tweeted that he was “revoking California’s federal waiver on emissions.” Which is interesting mostly because California’s waiver doesn’t come from a regulation at the Environmental Protection Agency. It’s not the result of an executive order signed by President Obama. That waiver is built into the Clean Air Act, which from the outset explicitly granted California the right to set standards that were tougher than those required by the federal government. Even though the EPA makes a regular announcement that it is “granting” California’s waiver, that action is as ceremonial as anything done by, say, the British monarch. California’s primacy to set these limits is enshrined in law.
Even before there was a Clean Air Act, the growing smog over California cities led the state to set its own regulations of automobile emissions. In fact, it was done with the strong support of that noted liberal Ronald Reagan. A decade later, California’s right to create and update those standards was baked into the new act, and for the next 30 years it regularly updated its requirements. Those updates were granted waivers by the EPA not because the administration at the time agreed with them, but because the EPA has no choice in granting the waivers. Once those standards are set, other states have the option of following the federal guidelines or of joining California in using more stringent requirements.
The last such waiver was granted in 2009, not because California felt it no longer needed that authority, but because, starting in 2012, the Obama administration worked with the state to put in place standards that met the needs of California and the 14 other states that had adopted California’s standards.
The California standards are directly responsible for not only reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere by billions of tons, but also directly promoting the development of new automotive technologies, from the catalytic converter, to the hybrid engine, to the electric car. Those advancements have also been critical to keeping U.S. manufacturers competitive with other makers from around the world, as guidelines elsewhere have frequently outpaced U.S. federal requirements.
If every criminal would announce their intention to break the law on Twitter, law enforcement would be a good deal neater. Trump can no more revoke California’s ability to define its own standards than he can wipe out the Clean Air Act by fiat. Which is exactly what he’s attempting to do.
Trump’s tweet claims that making emissions standards lower would make cars both cheaper and safer. It’s the same argument Republicans, led by Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, have been making for decades—allow American companies to build cars bigger with higher fuel consumption, and they’ll be safer. But creating a United States Big Dumb Car Zone has been deadly for U.S. automakers and anything but safe for U.S. consumers. As standards went up elsewhere, U.S. manufacturers such as Ford and GM routinely introduced their newer models overseas. American consumers were forced to get by with aging versions, providing fewer improvements on every front, including safety.
The regulations that were negotiated under Obama were critical in that they brought together California and federal regulations, while closely aligning those harmonized regulations with standards in Europe and elsewhere. The result was that, for the first time in decades, manufacturers were able to make single models of vehicles that met standards across the United States and, often, around the globe.
What Trump has done already by walking away from the negotiated standards at the federal level threatens to return the United States to third-world car status—the place to dump those leftovers that no longer make it out in the rest of the world. Trump has also created a schism in which California and its associated 14 states meet different rules than the rest of the U.S. does.
Automakers hate this idea. Yes, they understand that meeting higher fuel economy and lower emission standards will require them to keep investing in R&D. But they need to do that anyway, if they hope to compete around the globe.
What terrifies them is exactly that idea of the United States becoming a cesspool of downgraded vehicles. Because they know that if that happens, they’re vulnerable to being undercut by competitors who are willing to slip in a cheaper, older, less-efficient engine. They don’t want to produce a substandard product simply for the American market, because making one model sellable around the world provides its own benefits to manufacturers. But they fear that they’ll be forced to do so because of market forces if regulations are weakened. That’s why a coalition of manufacturers has already signed on with California, agreeing to accept its standards instead of the federal standards, no matter in which state a vehicle is sold. It’s an attempt to use an agreement to get around Trump’s market-splintering actions.
So, in response, Trump is now trying to pull the rug out from under manufacturers and force them to use dirtier standards. Even if they don’t want to. Even if it would would result in American consumers getting products that are objectively less efficient, less advanced, and less safe than those sold to consumers in other nations. And, of course, the result would also be more carbon issued into the atmosphere at a time when we need to make critical cuts.
It’s a move that doesn’t help anyone. Except the oil companies. And Trump’s friend Mohammed bin Salman.
Fortunately, there seems to be absolutely no suggestion in the law that Trump has this option. California is required only to set standards and submit them. That carveout, and the ability of other states to follow its lead, isn’t open to interpretation or repeal. It’s simply there.
If Trump wants it changed, let him ask Congress. In the meantime, he’s going to get a smackdown in court.