Last week, a group of Republican attorneys general decided to sue the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over its decision to reinstate the waiver allowing California to set its own limitations on exhaust gasses and zero-emission vehicle mandates that would exceed federal standards.
The agency approved the waiver after it had been eliminated as part of the Trump administration’s fuel rollback on the grounds that it would create a schism within the industry by forcing automakers to produce vehicles that catered to the Californian market at the expense of products that might be appreciated in other parts of the country. However, Joe Biden’s EPA sees things differently and has aligned itself with the California Air Resources Board (CARB) in giving the state more leeway to govern itself in regard to emissions policing.
In fact, Biden issued an executive order in January 2021 that directed the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and the EPA to reconsider the Trump administration’s 2019 decision to revoke California’s ability to self-regulate.
The coalition of AGs is said to be headed by Ohio’s Dave Yost and is asserting in the courts that Clean Air Act waiver violates the Constitution’s equal sovereignty doctrine. Yost was joined by officials from Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, and West Virginia who have joined the federal lawsuit.
Though this is all fair play considering that the emissions fracas has become a never-ending saga of partisan bickering, large states (usually California) throwing their weight around, and constant lawsuits funded by the American taxpayer. When the Trump administration was attempting to negotiate the revised fuel economy standards, the relevant hearings showed officials and legislators throwing tantrums and occasionally refusing to sit near members of the opposition. While some compromises were made, continuing to allow California to set its own rules was not among them. Trump’s EPA even went so far as to cite the Golden State as having the worst air quality in the union, noting an inability to “carry out its most basic tasks under the Clean Air Act.”
Meanwhile, California was encouraging other Democratic-controlled states and a subset of multinational automakers to promise adherence to its emissions laws — rather than the federally issued standards. Several of those states later joined forces to sue the Trump administration in 2020 under the claim that the whole fueling rollback was illegal and based on faulty information. Though it ultimately didn’t matter, since the Biden administration immediately committed itself to dissolve any changes made under the previous White House. This included reinstating California’s waiver, originally issued under the Obama administration in 2013, and reforming the EPA and DOT leadership.
The shoe is now on the other foot and Republicans are attempting to sue the EPA on the grounds that California has been allotted special treatment. IHS Markit reported that the lawsuit was filed on May 13th in the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
The AGs are claiming that the waiver effectively violates the Constitution, which West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said creates a federalist framework in which all states are equal and none is more equal than others.
“The Trump administration understood that, and prohibited California from setting its own oppressive standards,” Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt stated. “The Biden administration has since repealed the Trump order and given California the go-ahead to set ‘green’ manufacturing standards, which in reality, crush the average American who is already facing astronomical prices at the pump because of the Biden administration’s failed policies.”
This issue is definitely larger than just cars. Republicans have sued the EPA on a couple of items relating to how it wants to regulate emissions from manufacturing and energy production. The Supreme Court is even looking into where the agency’s authority should stop in terms of coal-fired power plants. But the general trend has been for emissions regulations to become increasingly stringent, regardless of who is occupying the White House or what letter appends the name of your governor. Leadership from seventeen states have opted to run with California’s plan — including bans of internal combustion vehicles by 2035 — and the rest are subject to enhanced tailpipe regulations under Biden’s EPA.
This one doesn’t have an easy answer. Automakers are largely split on the issue and there is a clear conflict between what constitutes states’ rights and allowing one region’s influence to supersede the rest. Frankly, California’s overbearing environmental policies don’t seem to have been all that realistic or successful. It may be foolhardy to extend them to the rest of the nation, undoubtedly altering the kind of vehicles that will be produced. But one should probably have serious reservations about limiting any local body’s ability to govern itself. It’s just a shame that this unproductive circus, led by uncompromising and litigious partisans, is likely to determine the fate of the industry and perhaps the next vehicle you’ll be buying.
Become a TTAC insider. Get the latest news, features, TTAC takes, and everything else that gets to the truth about cars first by subscribing to our newsletter.