States’ Rights: EPA Seeks ’50-State Solution’ for Fuel Rules, California Happy to Settle for 16

Andrew Wheeler, the acting head of the Environmental Protection Agency, said the United States needs a single standard for fuel efficiency for cars and trucks on Tuesday. It’s a sentiment shared by Mary Nichols, head of California Air Resources Board, but it’s likely to put the two at odds. Wheeler said the pair shared that singular goal based off a meeting held last week, but California isn’t seeking the same benchmarks as the current administration.

The state objects to the EPA’s plan to weaken Obama-era efficiency targets, and is currently in the midst of a political and legal battle with the agency. However, Wheeler confirmed that, under his watch, the group would continue seeking a “50-state solution.” 

While plenty of automotive regulations will likely vary between states, corporate average fuel economy rules aren’t likely to be among them. Fine by us. It’s one thing to force automakers to step up their game but it’s another to put the burden on consumers and taxpayers. Vehicle inspection laws and mandatory emission testing are great way to waste an afternoon while someone ineffectually checks to make sure your ride is “safe.” But cheating is rampant and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration claims only a tiny fraction of traffic accidents are attributable to mechanical failure, anyway.

If you’re from a state that doesn’t mandate annual inspections, then you’re probably happy to keep it that way. It’s a separate issue, for the most part, but does call into question the notion of states’ rights. California has a strict environmental policy and a waiver under the Clean Air Act to set its own standards. Revoking it is a gentle affront to conservative principles — ironic, considering there’s a Republican in the White House.

The EPA has stated in the past that ambitious fueling regulations aren’t realistic. Consumers aren’t buying more fuel efficient vehicles and automakers are spending a bundle preparing to adhere to benchmarks the average person doesn’t care about (until you start talking about cleaner air and the environment). Then, everyone says regulations are good and goes out to purchases a new SUV anyway.

To some extent, automakers will still have to adhere to global standards. And it’s more important to them that everyone agrees, since accounting for disparities can be costly. But they’ve also been lobbying for softer fuel economy targets for the past two years. President Trump seems to think that cutting them a break might result in more investment, which could mean more jobs. However, the industry isn’t famous for always doing the right thing. As businesses, their primary goal is to make money. It just so happens that sometimes coincides with opening up a new factory in the United States.

Regardless of the nuisances of doing business, Trump seems dead set on revoking California’s fuel waiver to impose softer limits. We knew that was likely to be the case, but Bloomberg released details confirming the administration’s plan on Tuesday. The proposal, kept under wraps for quite some time, should be released any day now. It would cap federal fuel economy requirements at the 2020 level, which results in a 35-mile-per-gallon fleet average under federal law, rather than the 50-ish mpg average (by 2025) envisioned during the Obama administration.

This will be followed by a formal proposal from the EPA officially seeking the revocation of the Clean Air Act waiver granted to California. Without it, the state can’t regulate carbon emissions from vehicle tailpipes and force carmakers to sell a minimum number of electric vehicles in the state. The NHTSA will similarly assert that California is barred from regulating greenhouse gas emissions from autos under the 1975 law that established the first federal fuel-efficiency requirements. The state’s waiver saw EPA approval in 2009.

California was joined by 16 other states and the District of Columbia in a lawsuit seeking to block the Trump administration’s effort to roll back the standards. Dan Sperling, a member of the state’s Air Resources Board, claims more states will join once they see the Trump administration attack the idea of states’ rights — even though the group would love if the rest of the nation adhered to its rules.

“We have the law on our side, as well as the people of the country and the people of the world,” Sperling said.

a version of this article first appeared on thetruthaboutcars.com

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