Four days after President Trump’s inauguration, California Gov. Jerry Brown delivered his State of the State address providing assurance to the citizens of his state that California would continue leading the country on climate initiatives, regardless of the direction of the federal government. “They can’t change the facts. And these are the facts: the climate is changing, the temperatures are rising and so are the oceans… The world knows this,” Brown said before the legislature, defending California's policies. California's leadership role is not set in stone, however. During his confirmation hearing to become the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt would not commit to allowing California to continue setting its own, stricter vehicle emission standards—foreshadowing a potential legal battle between California and the EPA.

California’s geography and development pattern contributed to a history of air pollution and emission issues relating to cars dating back to the 1960s, which caused it to adopt pollution laws before the federal government. Because of this, in 1970 Congress authorized California to adopt stricter motor vehicle emission standards than the enacted federal requirements under the Clean Air Act; however, the state must receive a waiver from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to enact its standards under Section 209. These can then be adopted by other states in lieu of the federal standards per Section 177 of the Clean Air Act, provided they are identical to California’s standards. While California is the only state to be granted such an exemption by the EPA, 15 states have adopted California’s standards.

This waiver system has allowed California to provide the de-facto U.S. standard for car and truck emission controls. In order for automakers to sell their vehicles nationwide, they have to comply with California’s tougher standards.

Regulators in California and the corresponding Section 177 states have relied on the waiver process to help drive down air pollution and greenhouse gas emission levels, and make automakers develop more efficient vehicles. In 2002, California created state standards for greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles known as the Pavely Law, which has helped cut the level of California emissions from cars and trucks by almost a third since 2009. In December 2012, the EPA granted California the ability to implement its Advanced Clean Cars Program for model years 2015-2025, imposing stricter fleet average standards on cars and light-duty trucks and setting a goal that 15 percent of all new vehicle sales in the state be represented by zero-emission vehicles by 2025.

When Scott Pruitt was asked by California Senator Kamala Harris if he would continue to grant her state a waiver should he be confirmed as the new EPA Administrator, Pruitt said he is planning to review the waiver process and declined to guarantee the continuation of California's waiver before completing such a review. If the waiver is retracted, it could carry grave implications for the future of not only California’s climate policies, but also for those of the states that have chosen to adopt California’s standards. Around 40 percent of cars in the United States are sold in California or in a state that has adopted its standards.

As the attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt sued the EPA 14 times, arguing that the agency was infringing on his state's right to adopt its own environmental rules. This suggests he might be open to letting California set its own regulations. If Pruitt were to side against the waiver, California would likely sue the EPA in defense of states’ rights, tying up the rule in court for years.


Author: Andrew Wollenberg