Biden Restores California’s Right to Set U.S. Clean Car Standards

To advance the decarbonization of American transportation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has reinstated California’s authority under the Clean Air Act to implement its own emission standards for cars and light trucks - standards stricter than those of the federal government - standards that other states can also adopt and enforce.

This action, taken on March 9, concludes the Biden administration’s reconsideration of the Trump-era 2019 Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient Vehicles Rule Part One: One National Program Rule (SAFE-1) by finding that the actions taken under the administration of President Donald Trump "were decided in error and are now entirely rescinded."

As part of its plan to roll back the Obama-era Clean Car Standards, in September 2019 the Trump administration revoked California’s 50-year-old Clean Air Act waiver to set its own vehicle emissions standards. This was unprecedented. It is the only time in the EPA’s history that agency has revoked a waiver granted to the state. Further, the Trump rule prevented states that previously adopted the California standard from continuing to employ the California standard in their states.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan was happy to announce the reinstatement . "Today we proudly reaffirm California’s longstanding authority to lead in addressing pollution from cars and trucks,” he said.


Michael Regan

Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Nearly a million fossil-fueled cars on Los Angeles freeways every day contribute to the smoggy air enshrouding the city
Nearly a million fossil-fueled cars on Los Angeles freeways every day contribute to the smoggy air enshrouding the city

Stakeholders from across state governments, business, advocacy and public health groups, and Members of Congress are praising this critical step to confront the climate crisis, reduce air pollution, and save drivers money at the gas pump.

California Governor Gavin Newsom said, "I thank the Biden Administration for righting the reckless wrongs of the Trump Administration and recognizing our decades-old authority to protect Californians and our planet."

"The restoration of our state’s Clean Air Act waiver is a major victory for the environment, our economy, and the health of families across the country that comes at a pivotal moment underscoring the need to end our reliance on fossil fuels," Governor Newsom said.

Speaking for Ford Motor Co., Vice President for Sustainability Bob Holycross said, "Ford is still proud to be the only full-line U.S. automaker to have agreed to comply with California's stricter emissions standards. It was the right thing to do before the last election, it’s the right thing to do now, and we’re committed to doing the right thing going forward."

Head of Global Policy for General Motors, Omar Vargas, said, "We believe everyone should have access to affordable, long-range electric vehicle options, and we are committed to working in collaboration with California to achieve an equitable transportation future. We’re all in on putting everybody in an EV."

California's Standard-Setting Authority Dates Back 50+ Years

The Clean Air Act empowers the EPA to regulate air pollution from motor vehicles. To promote uniformity in state to state across the country, the law generally bars states from regulating car emissions.

But when the Clean Air Act was signed into law by President Richard Nixon on December 31, 1970, California was already developing innovative laws and standards to address its unique air pollution problems, particularly in Los Angeles. So Congress carved out an exemption.

In the 1950s scientists recognized that Los Angeles was built in a basin surrounded by mountains, had a rapidly growing population, and a warm climate. These factors are a recipe for dangerous smog.

Dutch chemist Arie Jan Haagen-Smit discovered in 1952 that worsening Los Angeles smog episodes were caused by photochemical reactions between California’s sunshine and nitrogen oxides and unburned hydrocarbons in motor vehicle exhaust. The warm land next to the cool ocean water produces an on-shore breeze that tends to push the air inland toward the mountains so that the smog hangs over the city.

California’s Motor Vehicle Pollution Control Board issued regulations mandating use of the nation’s first vehicle emissions control technology in 1961, and developed the nation’s first vehicle emissions standards in 1966. Two years later the EPA adopted standards identical to California’s for model year 1968 cars.

As long as California’s standards protect public health and welfare at least as strictly as federal law, and are necessary "to meet compelling and extraordinary conditions," the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to grant California a waiver so it can continue to apply its own regulations. California has received many waivers since the 1960s as it has worked to reduce vehicle emissions by enacting ever more stringent standards.

Cancer Risk High in Los Angeles

Results of a major study, the Multiple Air Toxics Exposure Study, released in the year 2000, show the risk of cancer in the Los Angeles Basin was about 1,400 per million people.

Since then, California's control of its tailpipe emissions has lowered the cancer risk for Los Angeles residents, but they are still breathing air that makes them sick.

"Residents in the Los Angeles/Long Beach port area visit emergency rooms for asthma attacks 40 percent more often than the state average. And their cancer risk from toxic air, primarily from diesel exhaust, was 35% higher than the Los Angeles basin’s average in 2018 - although it’s less than half the estimates for 2012 and 2013," writes Rachel Becker in a January 2022 report for the website CalMatters, "Fighting for justice in California’s polluted places."

Mobile sources of emission - cars, trucks, trains, ships, aircraft - are the greatest contributor to cancer risk. About 70 percent of all risk is attributed to diesel particulate emissions; about 20 percent to other toxics associated with mobile sources like benzene, butadiene, and formaldehyde; and about 10 percent of all risk is attributed to stationary sources such as dry cleaners and chrome plating operations, finds the Multiple Air Toxics Exposure Study.

Other states can’t set their own standards, but they can choose to follow California’s motor vehicle emission regulations. Currently, 16 states and the District of Columbia have adopted California’s standards.

On the east coast, New York is one of the 16 states that has adopted California's standards. Governor Kathy Hochul said March 9, "Reinstating the California Clean Air Act waiver will allow New York to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and institute higher air quality standards that will benefit all of our communities. With today’s restoration, the Biden Administration is demonstrating their sustained commitment to fighting climate change, and bolstering New York’s efforts to make all new passenger cars and trucks sold in New York State to be zero-emissions by 2035."

In the Rocky Mountains, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said, "These standards are needed to reduce air pollution, protect public health, and address the harmful effects of climate change. … Now, Colorado can continue with our Low- and Zero-Emission Vehicle Program with regulatory certainty, which will improve air quality, give customers more choice when purchasing an electric vehicle, and transition our state to a clean energy economy," Weiser said.

Out west, Nevada follows the California emissions control regulations, too. Governor Steve Sisolak applauded the EPA for confirming that Nevada and other states can adopt cleaner cars standards to address air and climate pollution.

"Nevada is a transportation electrification leader and I'm proud we adopted Clean Cars Nevada in 2021 to support a vibrant, equitable, sustainable Nevada," said Sisolak. "Transportation is the number one source of greenhouse gas emissions in Nevada and drives disproportionate pollution burdens for historically underserved communities."

Citizens' groups representing a wide range of interests came out in favor of the reinstatement.


Carol Browner

Chair League of Conservation Votes, and Director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy 2009-2011

"Comprehensive clean car standards make it possible for states - and in turn, the whole country - to drive down vehicle pollution which unfairly burdens vulnerable communities in high traffic congestion areas, end U.S. reliance on dangerous, dirty and unreliable fossil fuels, and build a more just and equitable clean energy future," Browner said.

Many environmental, public health, and consumer advocacy organizations were pleased with the change of policy.

Ann Jaworski, staff attorney at the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center, said, "This is another step toward undoing Trump administration damage to progress on climate and clean cars. Under the Clean Air Act, once California sets its own vehicle standards, other states can adopt them as well. In July 2021, Minnesota announced it would implement California’s clean car and zero-emission vehicle standards for car model years 2025 onward once EPA restored California’s authority. Minnesota is the first Midwest state to do so and the 16th state overall, along with the District of Columbia. We are seeing the impacts of a changing climate on the Great Lakes and across the Midwest. It is imperative that we cut greenhouse gas pollution from cars and light trucks as we confront the climate crisis."

Sierra Club President Ramón Cruz said, "Reinstating California’s Clean Air Act waiver to adopt standards stronger than federal standards for new cars and light-duty trucks is vital to California and has a positive ripple effect on states across the country, driving forward climate progress and delivering cleaner air for millions of Americans."

But, of course, not everyone was happy with the change. The number of states opposed to the reinstatement match the number of states in favor.

A group of 16 Republican attorneys general led by Ohio AG Dave Yost, sent a comment letter to the U.S. EPA urging it to not reinstate California’s waiver under the Clean Air Act, which the letter argues is unconstitutional.

In the letter, the opposing attorneys general urge the EPA to maintain the Trump administration’s Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient Vehicles Rule, which revoked the waiver previously granted to California under the Clean Air Act and established nationwide emissions standards. The AGs argue reinstatement is unconstitutional because it violates equal-sovereignty principles requiring all states to be treated equally.

The opposing AGs argue that the waiver provides California with an advantage that it can wield to extract concessions from car manufacturers.

On the website of the ACOEL, a professional association of environmental lawyers, Dr. J.B. Ruhl, an American legal academic who teaches environmental law at Vanderbilt Law School, wrote just days before the EPA reinstatement that even with extensive emissions regulation, there will still be millions of fossil-fueled vehicles with internal combustion engines (ICE) on the world's roads by mid-century.

"Without policy interventions or technological breakthroughs, the natural glidepath we are on in will leave well over 100 million ICE vehicles using gasoline and diesel on the road in the US in 2050, and close to 1 billion globally," Dr. Ruhl predicts.

"My Target [store] parking lot would have more EV charging stations then, but it would also have a lot of ICEs parked and zipping around. Getting affordable EVs into the US market will be essential even to stay on the natural glidepath," Dr. Ruhl wrote. "From there, cheerleading EVs may not be enough - we may need to get tough on ICEs. Talk about a bumpy road ahead…"