What You Need to Know About the California Emissions Waiver Trump Might Revoke

The waiver actually affects a far larger segment of the population than just California.

Getty Images

Since 1970, the Clean Air Act has legally permitted California to set and enforce its own tailpipe emissions standards for new vehicles, but given President Trump's move for deregulation across the board, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, will seek to revoke the current waiver that's tied to the stringent emissions standards that Barack Obama set in November before he left office. 

What Is the California Emissions Waiver?

California has had a pollution problem for decades, dating back to even the late 40s. Around this time, the Golden State sought to curtail pollution coming from industrial factories, thinking the factories were the sole culprit, but to no avail; the smog lingered, then worsened. California's mountainous topography didn't help, either—the mountains trap in smog, causing a layer of atmospheric haze rife with harmful pollutants. It wasn't until the mid-1950s that tailpipe emissions were connected to the smog, and six years after this discovery, made by a scientist at the California Institute of Technology, California enacted legislation that limited tailpipe emissions in 1960. 

How Does it Operate Today?

10 years later, in 1970, when Congress was in the process of drafting the Clean Air Act, California urged lawmakers to let the state continue using its own program, arguing that "it was successful, and that its air problems were naturally worse than other states," according to Ann Carlson, a professor of environmental law at the University of California Los Angeles, speaking to The Atlantic. The lawmakers subsequently obliged, and California was written into the Clean Air Act in a way that allowed the state to request a waiver from the administrator of the EPA to curtail tailpipe emissions more restrictively than what the federal government allows. Accordingly, the EPA administrator is required by law to grant the waiver to California if the state's emissions standards are "at least as protective of public health and welfare as applicable Federal standards."

Is California the Only State With a Waiver?

Yes—and it's the only state allowed to request one—but other states are legally allowed to adopt California's homegrown emissions standards, and many—16, to date, including New York, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Florida, and Washington—have either followed suit or are making progress to enact these standards. Numbers-wise, that's at least 135 million people—or roughly 40 percent of the country—whose new cars are required to follow California's more-stringent-than-the-fed's regulations. When you consider that car dealerships in states bordering CA-waiver-compliant states are legally allowed to sell CA-compliant cars, that figure only goes up.

Why Does the Trump Administration Want to Revoke the Waiver?

Trump's modus operandi is to deregulate environmental standards in an effort to ostensibly increase the workforce and bolster the economy; the 17 automakers that urged him to revisit EPA guidelines so as to avoid the loss of up to a reported one million jobs as well as skip the $200 billion it would cost between 2012 and 2025, according to their calculations, seem to back up this thinking from the carmaker side. Robinson Meyer at The Atlantic posits that, aside from the stated jobs-and-money arguments, revoking California's favored status in terms of car emissions would undermine its broader climate-protection efforts and allow federal law to override them, making a whole array of rollbacks and deregulation outside of the automotive realm possible.

Has This Happened Before?

No. It's entirely unprecedented. In fact, there's been only one president who has declined to authorize (not revoked) California's emissions waiver request: George W. Bush denied the waiver request, in 2007, over CA's wish to add limits on greenhouse gas emissions (until that point, only toxic air pollutants were measured). California and 13 other states that followed CA's emissions regulations sued the EPA. The case was never decided, because when then-President Obama took office, he announced new national standards that took into greenhouse gas emissions into account, and granted the CA waiver.

Can the Waiver be Revoked?

Again, there's no precedent. Though it's clear that the EPA holds the sole right to grant the authorization, until the current administration, no president or EPA administrator has sought to revoke a current, in-place emissions waiver for California. The Clean Air Act is clear on why an authorization can be denied:

According to the Clean Air Act Section 209 - State Standards, EPA shall grant an authorization under section 209(e)(2), unless the Administrator finds that California:

  • was arbitrary and capricious in its finding that its standards are, in the aggregate, at least as protective of public health and welfare as applicable federal standards;
  • does not need such standards to meet compelling and extraordinary conditions; or
  • California’s standards and accompanying enforcement procedures are not consistent with this section.

... but that's not the same thing as saying those are legal grounds for a revocation, or even that California fits those criteria if they were. 

The consortium of automakers who lobbied the Trump administration to revisit emissions regulations called it “the single most important decision the E.P.A. has made in recent history.” That's not hyperbole. Only one thing seems to be for sure: if the waiver is indeed revoked, an epic storm of litigation will roll in from California and the states that follow California's emissions standards.