A Climate Conflict in the Golden State

The Trump administration’s Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient Vehicles Rule hurts the economy, sets a politically negative precedent, and furthers the already drastic effects of climate change.

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On Wednesday, September 18, 2019, President Donald Trump sent out a tweet stating that his administration would be pursuing the Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient Vehicles Rule (SAFE Vehicles Rule) with the goal of “revoking California’s Federal Waiver on emissions” on September 18, 2019. The SAFE Vehicles Rule would amend fuel economy, tailpipe emissions for cars and light trucks in the state, and establish new standards for model years 2021 through 2026, drastically affecting California’s current emission policies.

California’s federal waiver began in 1970 with the Clean Air Act, which granted California the right to set its own rules on climate-warming automobile emissions, or tailpipe emissions. The Golden State already had clean air legislation, making its strict standards on emissions the next step to halting climate change. California’s standards are far stricter than federal standards and are an important aspect of the state’s environmental policy. The state is more stringent on hydrocarbon and nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions, and its cars’ gasoline has less sulfur, benzene, and hydrocarbons than most gasoline in the United States. There is also a number of motor vehicle emission classifications in California, most of which mandate zero evaporative emissions, which occur when fuel evaporates while a car is idle. These standards have influenced national and international policies on climate change. As of now, 13 other states have followed California’s tailpipe greenhouse gas standards, including New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. Any proposed or actual loosening of California’s standards will have environmental impacts far beyond the borders of the state itself—indeed, the effects would be felt on a national scale.

The Trump administration invoked a two-part automobile emissions rule with the first section revoking California’s waiver under the Clean Air Act. The second section, however, has not yet been decided. It will involve setting future fuel efficiency standards for emissions starting in 2025. The administration wants this rule to go into effect in order to “create more jobs,” “improve highway safety,” produce “far less expensive and safer cars,” and put together “environmentally friendly cars.” Much like Trump’s other claims, these are unwarranted and highly unlikely to succeed.

The federal government has no reasonable explanation for how this new rule will create more jobs or improve highway safety, but what’s clear is that it will make cars less safe and more expensive and will have countless negative effects on the environment. Under the Obama administration, California’s rule was created to build vehicles that achieve an average fuel economy of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, which would cut over six billion tons of carbon dioxide pollution. Considering the fact that tailpipe pollution is the United States’ largest source of planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, this rule would largely mitigate effects of climate change. Each gallon of gasoline would also last for a much longer distance, which translates to less money spent on gasoline.

The SAFE Vehicles Rule, however, would accomplish the exact opposite of many of these positive effects. It will lower the requirement for average fuel economy to 37 miles per gallon, leading to higher rates of carbon pollution and an increase in gas prices. There are over 35 million vehicles in California alone, and combined with the vehicles in the other 13 states that follow California’s waiver, millions of automobiles will require more gasoline and will release tons of tailgate pollution into an already polluted atmosphere. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States’ fuel consumption would increase by about half a million barrels per day.

By keeping California from controlling its own gas pollution, the federal government also sets a precedent for its involvement in state governments’ affairs. In the United States, the federal, state, and local governments have their own (sometimes overlapping) powers, but each level has its own defined jurisdiction. By removing California’s waiver on emission standards, the federal government will be taking power away from California’s state legislature and its governor. Groups of Republicans have supported Trump on this issue without thinking about how it would affect states’ rights and upset the balance between the different levels of government. This would prevent states from contributing money and effort to the movement to combat climate change, arguably one of the biggest international issues today.

In terms of future implications, the decision on California’s emission standards can move to the Supreme Court, which can permanently keep states from regulating greenhouse gas pollution from vehicles. With one national standard for greenhouse gas pollution, urban states with significantly more vehicles will be emitting far more carbon dioxide pollution. The outcome will also split the United States automobile market, with some states adhering to stricter pollution standards than others. States with vehicles supporting only 37 miles per gallon would experience a period of lower profits, hurting local economies in a substantial way. It will be especially difficult for automakers, who oversee the building of these new vehicles, to keep up with interstate differences in environmental regulations when trying to market to as many consumers as possible.

In a world where climate change strikes are orchestrated across the globe, it is quite unusual for the United States, one of the most powerful countries in the world, to further worsen the effects of climate change. Not only will the SAFE Vehicles Rule have negative environmental impacts on the entire nation, but it will also damage the legitimacy and stature of the United States federal government.