Twenty-Three States Push to Save California’s De Facto National Fuel Efficiency Standards

Published September 16, 2019

The governors of 23 U.S. states have joined California in demanding the Trump administration reverse its proposal to withdraw California’s Clean Air Act waiver for automobile emissions.

If they are successful in persuading the administration to change its mind regarding the waiver or, barring that, succeed in lawsuits they’ve threatened, California will essentially be allowed to set Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards nationwide, forcing automakers to comply with the state’s standards all across the country or go through the expensive process of establishing separate product lines for different states.

In a letter written in July, the governors of California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin, and the territory of Puerto Rico, mostly led by Democrats, said they “stand together in calling for one strong, national clean car standard and support preserving state authority to protect our residents from vehicle pollution.”

Noticeably absent among the letter’s signatories was Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, whose state is home to the nation’s big three automobile manufacturers: Ford, Fiat Chrysler, and General Motors.

Legality of California’s Waiver

Under the 1970 Clean Air Act (CAA), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets national standards for vehicle tailpipe emissions of certain pollutants. However, CAA allows the EPA to grant states waivers to impose stricter standards than federal law, and for several decades the agency has allowed California to do so. EPA also allowed 13 other states and the District of Columbia to adopt California’s standards, resulting in those standards applying to one-third of the U.S. automobile market.

During the Obama administration, after the EPA concluded carbon dioxide posed a threat to human health, the agency granted California a waiver to limit automobile tailpipe emissions of carbon dioxide by treating it as a pollutant. That meant allowing California essentially to set separate, stricter fuel economy standards, which some other states adopted.

Critics of this decision, including the Trump administration, noted the 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act, which directed the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration to set CAFE standards, specifically precluded states from imposing their own fuel economy standards.

When EPA first broached rescinding California’s emissions waiver in 2018, then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said in testimony before Congress, “Federalism doesn’t mean that one state can dictate to the rest of the country. One national program is essential.”

Going Light

We’ve reached our limit on fuel economy for cars unless we’re prepared to drive in more dangerous, lightweight cars, says Mischa Popoff, a policy advisor for The Heartland Institute, which publishes Environment & Climate News.

“No matter how much disincentive is placed on automobile manufacturers, forcing them to stop making cars people actually want to drive, there is only so much efficiency we can obtain using lightweight materials,” Popoff said. “So cars have to become smaller and smaller, to the point of being dangerous.

“Peak efficiency with automobiles was probably achieved sometime back in the 1980s,” said Popoff. “There’ve been only very minor improvements over the decades, with the only cars doing noticeably better being so tiny as to be dangerous. You might as well buy two motorbikes and strap them together with hockey sticks.”

California Drives Market

California is distorting the market for new cars, says William Shuggart, a senior fellow at the Independent Institute.

“California has for many years imposed the nation’s strictest tailpipe emissions standards,” said Shuggart. “Because California is such a major market for automobile manufacturers, virtually all new cars and trucks sold in the United States, even those sold in places with less-strict regulatory rules, meet California’s standards.

“The result is higher price tags for vehicles everywhere, to cover the costs of complying with one state’s standards,” Shuggart said. “In fact, the two new 2019 Jeep Grand Cherokees I just took delivery of in Utah are ‘California compliant.’ California sets the bar because so many new vehicles are sold there and automobile manufacturers are not going to make some cars and trucks meeting California’s fuel economy standards and others which do not comply.”

California’s standards result in more expensive vehicles and little fuel savings, says Shuggart.

“Continuing to allow California to establish fuel economy standards which are tougher than the rest of the country essentially forces car and truck buyers in other states to pay higher prices for vehicles than they otherwise would,” said Shuggart. “As I and others have written elsewhere, the overall effects of fuel economy standards are ambiguous because of what’s known as the ‘rebound effect,’ in which, because fuel efficient vehicles consume less fuel per mile driven, those savings may be more than offset by people driving more miles because it is cheaper fuel-wise.”

‘Sacrificing Lives to Save Oil’

California shouldn’t be allowed to impose dangerous standards on other states, says James Taylor, a senior fellow with The Heartland Institute.

“The 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act explicitly prevents states from adopting their own fuel mileage mandates,” Taylor said. “One of the purposes of the law is to wisely not allow one or a few states to dictate, by their impact on market share, the fuel mileage mandates for the rest of the country.

“Literally, fuel mileage mandates are sacrificing lives to save oil,” Taylor said. “That is unconscionable. People should not be forced to forfeit their lives and important freedoms—in this case, freedom of choice—merely so government can say it saved consumers a few miles per gallon.”

Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.