Trump Administration Rescinds California’s Fuel Economy Waiver

Published October 1, 2019

The administration of President Donald Trump has announced regulations withdrawing a waiver that allowed California to set separate standards for greenhouse gases, under which the state set higher fuel economy requirements for cars sold within its borders.

The revocation of California’s emissions waiver has national significance because 13 other states, accounting for approximately one-third of the national market for automobiles and light trucks, have adopted California’s tighter standards.

Waiver Rescission Expected

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) decision to rescind California’s waiver had been widely expected since the agency announced it was reversing the Barack Obama administration’s sharp increase in Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards and freezing automobile fuel mileage mandates at 2020 levels through 2026, on August 2, 2018.

At that time, EPA announced there could be only a single, national fuel economy standard.

The governors of 23 U.S. states, led by California, had submitted a letter in July demanding the Trump administration reverse its proposal to withdraw California’s 1970 Clean Air Act waiver for automobile emissions.

Also in July, California announced it had developed an agreement with automakers BMW, Ford, Honda, and Volkswagen to sidestep EPA’s action by agreeing to stricter gas mileage and carbon-dioxide emission standards. The U.S. Justice Department has opened an investigation into the agreement to determine whether it violates federal antitrust law.

EPA developed the nationwide fuel economy standard in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).

National Standard Mandated

No state must be allowed to set fuel economy standards for the nation as a whole, which is solely within the authority of the federal government, said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler in a September 17 speech before the National Automobile Dealers Association, previewing EPA’s September 19 action.

“We embrace federalism and the role of the states, but federalism does not mean that one state can dictate standards for the nation,” Wheeler said.

“The one national program that we are announcing today will ensure that there is one, and only one, set of national fuel economy standards, as Congress mandated and intended,” said DOT Secretary Elaine Chao at the press event announcing the administration was rescinding California’s fuel economy waiver. “No state has the authority to opt out of the nation’s rules, and no state has the right to impose its policies on everybody else in our whole country. To do otherwise, harms consumers.”

Reinstating Rule of Law

Neither California nor any other state is legally entitled to override federal standards, says Tim Benson, a policy analyst with The Heartland Institute, which publishes Environment & Climate News.

“The 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act specifically preempts California or any other state from setting fuel economy standards: no waiver, no exception,” said Benson. “The Trump administration is following the law as written, not as radical environmentalists thought it should have been written.

“This move by the administration just ensures climate zealots in California’s legislature don’t get to dictate policy to the rest of the country,” Benson said.

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute.