The Trump administration on Friday launched an all-out assault on California’s authority to set its own automotive emissions standards in a battle over mileage rules, as government agencies opened an antitrust investigation and told state officials that they appear to be violating the law in a deal with four automakers for tougher emissions limits.
The emissions fight will make or break an effort by President Donald Trump to relax mileage standards nationwide. California’s congressionally granted authority to set its own, tougher emissions standards under the 1970 Clean Air Act has long prodded automakers to adopt more fuel efficient passenger vehicles.
Ford and Honda confirmed receiving a letter from the U.S. Justice Department informing them of an antitrust inquiry into the July deal, in which the two automakers along with Volkswagen and BMW agreed to stricter emissions standards than preferred by Trump, who is seeking to ease Obama-era mileage standards. And the Department of Transportation and Environmental Protection Agency sent a letter to California claiming the deal appears to violate the Clean Air Act and other laws.
“Congress has squarely vested the authority to set fuel economy standards for new motor vehicles, and nationwide standards for GHG (greenhouse gas) vehicle emissions, with the federal government, not with California or any other state,” the agencies wrote in a letter dated Friday to the California Air Resources Board, which oversees auto emissions in the state.
Ford spokesman T.R. Reid confirmed Friday that the company received the Justice Department letter and says the company is cooperating. He would not disclose which other automakers may have gotten the letter but Honda confirmed that it had also received it.
The July deal bypassed the Trump administration’s plan to freeze emissions and fuel economy standards adopted under the Obama administration at 2021 levels.
The four automakers agreed with the California Air Resources Board to reduce emissions by 3.7% per year starting with the 2022 model year, through 2026. They would have gone up by 4.7% per year through 2025 under the Obama standards, according to California.
Emissions standards are closely linked with fuel economy requirements because vehicles pollute less if they burn fewer gallons of fuel.
The Justice Department wouldn’t comment on the investigation. The EPA also refused further comment.
In the letter to California, the EPA and Transportation Department warned the state’s pollution regulator to “disassociate” itself from the deal with the four automakers. “Those commitments may result in legal consequences given the limits placed in Federal law on California’s authority,” the letter said.
Former EPA attorneys who had worked on the emissions standards questioned the administration’s legal arguments Friday, on both fronts.
Congress in the 1970s granted California authority, through a waiver in the Clean Air Act, to pursue tougher automobile emissions standards, in a nod to the state’s battles with smog. Lawmakers also allowed for other states to follow California’s tougher standards.
The move over the decades has at times led to two different pollution and related mileage standards, one set by California and the states that follow it, and a federal one. The Trump administration is now challenging whether California has that legal authority under the Clean Air Act.
“It’s crystal clear that it’s very hard to deny California a waiver” from national automobile emissions standards, said John Hannon, a retired EPA lawyer with decades of experience in the matter.
“Congress set it up to give incredible deference to California’s authority to protect the health and safety of its residents,” Hannon said, referring to the Clean Air Act.