California unanimously votes to keep current emissions regs: another looming loss for Trump?

March 27, 2017

Last Friday was not a particularly good day for Donald Trump.

After campaigning for months on promises to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, the president's attempt to follow through on those vows stalled on Friday afternoon. Though Democrats were strongly opposed to the American Health Care Act, the bill's failure has largely been attributed to irreconcilable differences within Trump's own Republican party. 

But something else happened on Friday, something you might've missed due to all the healthcare headlines: the California Air Resources Board voted to maintain current emissions standards, which govern vehicles through the 2025 model year. 

That, in turn, could set the stage for another damaging showdown for Trump, not to mention the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt.

A brief recap

California has a reputation for prioritizing environmental concerns, and CARB is the embodiment of that stereotype.

For years, the agency lobbied the EPA for permission to set its own air quality standards. In 2009, the EPA gave in, and in doing so, it also gave other states the option of pegging their benchmarks to those established by CARB.

Today, companies doing business nationwide have to contend with two sets of air quality regulations: one for California and the states aligned with CARB (Arizona, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia), and one for the rest of the country. 

Thankfully, CARB and the EPA have had a good relationship the past several years, and they've worked together to create policies that establish uniform (or uniform-ish) standards from coast to coast. 

Earlier this month, though, Trump authorized a review of a controversial EPA decision on auto emissions that was finalized during the last few days of the Obama administration. It's widely presumed that Trump and Pruitt want to undo the decision--after all, both dislike regulation and at least one of them (Pruitt) doubts that human activity has anything to do with climate change.

Upending the Obama-era decision won't be easy. It will require a lot of lengthy discussions with automakers, economists, and engineers. And due to EPA policies, before changing anything, the administration will need to present plenty of scientific facts to support its arguments--facts that others are already prepared to counter

But for the sake of argument, let's assume that the administration (a) wants to undo the EPA decision and (b) does so. Then, let's go a step further and assume that Pruitt & Co. soften emissions regulations on new cars through the 2025 model year. What then?

That's where things get sticky.

A thorn in Trump's side?

The same day that Trump announced the EPA policy review, California governor Jerry Brown sent a strongly worded letter to Pruitt, stating that California was very unhappy about the decision. 

Last Friday, CARB went a step further as its 14 members unanimously voted to keep the current emissions standards in place--the same standards that may be rolled back following federal review. In doing so, agency officials criticized the Trump administration, with member Daniel Sperling saying that "if anything, these standards should be even more aggressive."

That, in turn, creates at least three possible scenarios:

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