California Can Set Its Own Emissions Rules Again. Here’s What That Means for You

The former administration took away the state's ability to do this, but now it's back.

Former President Trump and his administration did not get along with the state of California. I think I can say that pretty uncontroversially. One thing they especially didn’t agree on was California’s wish to set its own stringent emissions regulations for vehicles sold within its borders. Former President Trump even banned the state from continuing the practice, but now the Department of Transportation is reversing that action.

On Tuesday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration put out a statement saying it was on the road to reworking this Trump-era policy, with accompanying quotes from Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. “This final rule removes a roadblock to important state actions tackling climate change,” he said as a part of the announcement. “States can now actively pursue solutions to address the climate crisis and environmental challenges in their communities.”

The former administration’s actions were a part of a federal policy known as the Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient vehicle rule, or “SAFE.” Part of this new rule rescinded a waiver granted to the state of California in 1975 to set its own emissions regulations. SAFE was also the framework within which the previous 2026 goal of a 32 mpg fleet average was set, though that has now been bumped to 40 mpg.

The NHTSA has said it’s intended to take such action since April; however, the rubber is just now meeting the road. During the spring, the Trump administration’s actions were called “unnecessary and potentially unlawful” by the NHTSA. Since then, the federal agency has taken the tone that it will be encouraging states to set whatever stringent emissions regulations they please. 

“States have been leading the way, especially over the last four years, when it comes to cleaning up pollution and addressing climate change,” explained Dr. Steven Cliff, NHTSA’s acting administrator. “NHTSA’s proposed rule would remove unnecessary barriers to state leadership in regulating greenhouse gases and other air pollutants that spew from the tailpipes of cars.”    

Several other states have chosen to mirror California’s rules on transportation emissions in the past. This includes Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington, plus the District of Columbia. In turn, it effectively controls the regulatory landscape for a large portion of the country, known as CARB states since they follow the California Air Resource Board. It’s likely stricter regulations will appear in these states as well, especially since the NHTSA is pushing in that direction.

When California makes a change, automakers respond. With the state being re-granted its ability to set its own course in terms of combating climate change, it might set even tighter targets than those already planned for 2026. In fact, California’s governor Gavin Newsom has already said it will ban the sale of combustion-powered vehicles within its borders by 2035, not to mention the ban on small combustion engines by 2024.

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