DOT Allows California to Set Emission Standards Again

Two federal departments are dropping Trump-era mandates which restricted states’ abilities to set their own vehicle emission standards. It is expected California will again lead the charge against climate pollution.

(TNS) — The feud over vehicle emissions between California and the federal government that started during the Trump administration appears to be coming to an end.

As President Biden seeks to make climate change a top priority, the federal Department of Transportation announced Thursday that it will drop its rule and subsequent legal effort to prevent California and other states from regulating heat-trapping gases spewed from cars and light trucks.

California has been a pioneer on climate pollution, long setting vehicle emissions standards that are stricter than the federal government's. Two years ago, however, the Trump administration blocked the authority of states to go their own way on emissions, prompting California to sue and kicking off a protracted court fight that is now bound to draw to a close.

"Now that this unnecessary lawsuit is over, I look forward to the Biden administration working in concert with California to set new standards that combat climate change, protect public health and save consumers money," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D- Calif., said in a statement.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a division of the Transportation Department, said it will push forward with the 30-day public comment period required to change parts of the Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient Vehicles Rule that prevented states from issuing their own greenhouse gas emissions regulations, including zero-emissions vehicle mandates.

In a separate move, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected as soon as next week to restore a waiver California had long been granted, but was revoked under Trump, that allows the state to move ahead with standards that are more stringent than the federal government's.

Together the moves clear the path for California to re-enlist one of its most powerful tools to help slow global warming. Exhaust from cars and trucks accounts for about one-fifth of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. As engines burn gasoline or diesel, they produce carbon dioxide, which heats the atmosphere.

Thirteen states plus the District of Columbia had adopted California's tighter emissions standards.

"The transportation sector is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gases in our economy, which means it can and must be a big part of the climate solution," U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement. "This proposed rule would be an important step towards protecting public health and combating climate change."

The Biden administration has said that it will not only give states the power to set tougher regulations but that it's planning to tighten nationwide vehicle emission standards.

Under former President Donald Trump, the federal government relaxed vehicle rules put in place during the Obama administration. Officials said the standards were costly and driving up car prices.

Part of that deregulatory effort was removing California's ability to set its own regulations. Because the state is the largest car market in the United States, its rules essentially became the standard because automakers don't want to design different cars for different places.

California air regulators had worked with the Obama administration to create a single nationwide standard, and state officials are expected to similarly play a role in crafting the Biden policy.

The current rules, established under Trump, require auto manufacturers to make their cars and trucks 1.5 percent more fuel efficient every year through 2026, a metric that involves emissions and gas consumption. The previous regulation mandated 5 percent annual increases in efficiency.

Litigation filed by several states and environmental groups over the weaker Trump rules is still pending.

The automobile industry was initially divided over Trump's policy, but with the new administration, carmakers have become increasingly supportive of greener vehicles, with many pledging to expedite zero-emission fleets.

"Reinstating California's clean car authority is the first step toward the urgently needed goal of cleaning up transportation," said Bill Magavern, policy director for the Coalition for Clean Air in Sacramento.

"But we need the next round of higher standards," he said.

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