The battle between California and the Trump administration reached a crescendo of sorts last month, with the outcome very much in “the air.”
The president instructed the Environmental Protection Administration Agency (EPA) to revoke California’s long-standing ability to set automobile emissions standards that are firmer than federal rules. If the new direction of the Trump administration takes root, the air pollution consequences are likely to be dire for California, including the Bay Area.
This issue is hardly new. Because of the state’s topography — principally several valleys — California is besieged with poor air quality. Often, bad air is trapped with no place to go. A recent federal study found that California has 7 of the 10 most polluted regions in the nation. And the issue hits home right here in Silicon Valley. The same study placed the San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland region 8th in the nation, a fact that is reinforced with those increasingly frequent “spare the air” days.
Congress acknowledged this dilemma with an amendment to the 1970 Environmental Protection Act, which allows California to seek a waiver if the state seeks air pollution rules that are tougher than those passed by the federal government. Since the passage of that act, the state has applied for and received the environmental waiver on 45 occasions, with the automobile companies quickly falling into line with a national standard essentially generated by California.
Fast forward to the present. Experts have long known that automobile emissions are the largest source of greenhouse gas pollution in the United States. Nationally, tailpipe emissions from automobiles and trucks account for 30 percent of all green gases; in California the figure is 40 percent.
Thus, for decades, while EPA has increased miles-per-gallon requirements to nudge development of less-polluting cars, California has pushed the anti-pollution even more with its waiver requests. A few years ago during the Obama administration, the EPA established a new 54.5 miles-per-gallon requirement for automobiles produced, beginning 2025.
Now the Trump administration has balked at the latest mandate, contending that it would add an extra $3,000 to the average cost of an automobile. Instead, the EPA has set a much lower rate of 37 miles-per-gallon, insisting that the extra cost would be only $2,000 per automobile and therefore consumer-friendly.
But there is another side to the argument. Environmental experts have determined that the difference between the 54.5 mile-per-gallon and 37 miles-per-gallon requirements would yield a whopping 6 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions over the lifetimes of those cars. Then there’s the question of health. A recent study by M.I.T. found that 21,000 Californians die prematurely each year because of air pollution-related diseases. Untold millions more cope with asthma and related respiratory issues aggravated by miserable air pollution.
Given the deleterious impact of tailpipe-originated greenhouse gas emissions, California and 13 other states asked for a waiver. These states also arranged agreements with four major automobile producers to accept a state very close to the new Obama-era requirement. Nevertheless, the Trump administration denied the request. The issue will now be decided by the courts, which have become the home to California disputes with the Trump administration. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has already argued 60 cases against the Trump administration with some successes.
Beyond this particular dispute, it’s hard to fathom Trump’s logic. This is the same administration that has repeatedly stripped away national standards on a variety of policy areas including mining, offshore oil drilling, water quality and land toxicity, to cite a few examples. Yet, in this case, Trump says that one national standard should exist.
Perhaps the most egregious irony was recently argued by EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. At a news conference explaining why the EPA denied California’s waiver request, Wheeler declared that California should focus on its own issues “rather than trying to set fuel economy standards for the entire country.”
Given the climate crisis in California, the nation and the world, it’s hard to comprehend just how the Trump administration is meeting the environmental challenge without confronting air pollution. Yet for Californians, the fight goes on.
Larry N. Gerston is political science professor emeritus from San Jose State University and author of California Politics and Government with Terry Christensen.