California Should Stand Its Ground on Tailpipe Rules

As the federal government moves ahead with its promise to weaken car-emissions limits, California should keep its vow to stand in the way — and maintain America's progress in the fight against climate change.

California didn't ask for this fight. Six years ago, the state agreed with the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to gradually double the fuel efficiency of new cars and light trucks through 2025. But on Monday, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced that his agency will dial back the limits — and consider revoking California's permission to set its own standards.

California has the right to establish its own car-pollution rules because the state was already setting limits on tailpipe emissions when Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1970. The state's Air Resources Board receives waivers from the federal EPA to enforce its own stricter regulations, most recently from the Obama administration. The Clean Air Act not only authorizes California's standards but allows other states to follow them, and 12 states and the District of Columbia have chosen to do so. Together, they add up to about a third of the U.S. car market.

Automakers have thus had cause to treat California's fuel-efficiency standard as the de facto national standard. This explains why California now needs to do the entire country a favor by standing its ground.

The standards that California and the EPA agreed to in 2012 culminated in a level of more than 50 miles per gallon, or about 36 mpg in real-world driving, by 2025. It's important to note that the standards do not apply to every car made but to the average efficiency of an automaker's entire fleet. Car companies have since complained that the target is too high.

It's not a question of feasibility; the standard is eminently reachable. Rather, the carmakers' argument is market-based.

American consumers, they say, prefer SUVs and pickup trucks to more expensive and efficient electric and hybrid cars. Why force the industry to make cars its customers don't want to buy? Pruitt's EPA further argues that stricter limits will make cars cost more and discourage consumers from abandoning old gas-guzzlers in favor of more efficient new cars, thus keeping emissions high.

It's true that fuel-efficiency standards aren't the best way to reduce emissions — that would be a carbon tax — and that there could be smarter ways to implement these standards. Even so, the industry's argument, and Pruitt's, fails on the assumption that the price of gasoline (currently about $2.66 a gallon) will always remain low. When prices rise again, American pocketbooks — as well as the atmosphere — will benefit from the greater availability of more fuel-efficient cars.

California's attorney general has promised to sue, if necessary, to preserve the state's waiver to set its own standards. So there may well be a long legal battle ahead. In that case, California will be fighting not only for its hard-won prerogatives but for cleaner air for the rest of the country.

–Editors: Mary Duenwald, Michael Newman.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at
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