Biden administration expected to reinstate Calif. authority to set tougher emissions rules

David Beckam

WASHINGTON — The nation’s largest auto market and the world’s fifth-largest economy could soon regain the authority to set its own auto tailpipe rules and zero-emission vehicle mandates that are more stringent than federal standards.

The EPA is expected as soon as this week to reissue a waiver under the Clean Air Act allowing California to pursue its own tailpipe greenhouse gas emission standards and ZEV mandates, and reversing a Trump-era rule that sought to block states from doing so, several sources told Automotive News.

“EPA is working to finalize a decision on the California waiver … consistent with its obligations under the Clean Air Act and expects to issue a decision in the near future,” EPA spokeswoman Enesta Jones said in a statement.

NHTSA in December withdrew its portions of the former Trump administration’s rule — known the Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule Part One.

The agencies’ actions are driven by President Joe Biden’s executive order from January 2021, which directed the U.S. Department of Transportation and the EPA to reconsider the Trump administration’s 2019 decision to revoke the state’s authority.

The EPA granted California the waiver in 2013.

Republicans remain steadfast in opposition to the administration’s auto emissions policies. U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., Republican leader of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, released this statement in December:
“President Biden’s strict, rush-to-green auto emissions regulations are yet another example of this administration putting radical environmentalists’ agenda ahead of hardworking Americans. Instead of unleashing energy here at home to help lower gas prices and help families pay for record-high inflation, President Biden is doubling down on more command and control over the cars and pickup trucks we drive, without any concern if families can afford the vehicles that meet his standard.”

The California Air Resources Board is in the process of developing regulations that would accelerate the transition to ZEVs and strengthen emission standards for new light-duty cars and trucks sold in the state. The requirements would start with the 2026 model year and move to 100 percent sales of ZEVs starting in 2035, a spokesman told Automotive News last month.

A December draft of California’s clean cars rule shows the state aims to reach 61 percent ZEV sales by 2030, which is higher than Biden’s goal of 50 percent ZEV sales by the end of the decade.

In a letter sent Wednesday to Calif. Gov. Gavin Newsom, environmental and justice groups urged the state to set more aggressive standards to curb emissions and ensure an equitable transition to ZEVs.

“Now that he’s got the keys back, Gov. Newsom needs to steer California to the strongest possible clean car standard and reclaim the state’s climate leadership,” Scott Hochberg, a transportation attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, said in a statement to Automotive News.

“This decision begins to undo the damage from the Trump years,” Hochberg added, “but it’s only meaningful if California uses its unique power to lead the nation with the deep emissions cuts the climate crisis demands.”

Biden’s executive order last year also directed a review of fuel-efficiency standards for light vehicles.

The EPA in December finalized a tougher-than-expected rule on vehicle greenhouse gas emissions for the 2023 through 2026 model years that could act as a regulatory driver for speeding up the industry’s electrification plans.

Under the final rule, which is more stringent than the agency’s August proposal and the Obama-era requirements, emissions standards increase between about 5 and 10 percent each model year. The standards mandate an industrywide target of 161 grams of carbon dioxide per mile — or 40 mpg on window stickers — by the 2026 model year.

NHTSA is expected to issue its rule on fuel economy standards in March. The agency in August released a proposal that would increase fuel efficiency 8 percent annually for the 2024-26 model years and increase estimated fleetwide average by 12 mpg by the 2026 model year.

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