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California Air Resources Board votes to keep emissions requirements, vowing to protect the environment even if the EPA won’t

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) voted unanimously to continue implementing higher emissions standards in their meeting on Friday.  This sets California’s clean-air agency up for a fight against the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which recently signaled that they aren’t too interested in doing their job of actually protecting the environment.

The emissions rules require automakers to average 54.5mpg (by the less stringent CAFE standard) over all new vehicles by 2025.

California has long had a special waiver through the Clean Air Act which allows the state to set stricter standards than the federal government when it comes to auto emissions.  CARB has used that waiver to implement stricter emissions standards, require different gasoline mixes unique to California, and to enforce a Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate for automakers, requiring them to sell a certain percentage of ZEVs if they want to continue doing business in California.

And California’s actions have been extremely successful.  Anyone who lived near Los Angeles in the 60s and 70s will remember “smog days” where people were encouraged not to go outside because the air was dangerous to breathe, and will remember that the mountains which surround the city were obscured from sight by thick smog on all but the clearest of days.  But because of California’s strict emissions regulations, vehicle-related pollution in the Los Angeles basin has dropped by a whopping 98 percent since the 60s, even though LA now uses almost three times as much gasoline as it did then.

New EPA boss Scott Pruitt was directly asked about California’s waiver during his confirmation hearings, and answered that he would “review” the waiver which ensures the state of California’s right to set their own emissions standards.  This despite the fact that Pruitt spent many years suing the EPA on states’ rights grounds at the behest of his oil & gas industry donors, arguing that his state should be allowed to pollute more than federal guidelines allow.  It is interesting that an administrator who claims to care about states’ rights would care more about certain states’ rights than others.  Some might even call this “extremely clear hypocrisy.”

Luckily, California has already started preparing for this fight.  In January, the state hired Eric Holder, former US Attorney General to help in any future legal fights against the federal government on environmental grounds.  And California has the support of other states, too.  12 other states, the “CARB states,” automatically adopt California’s emissions standards.  In response to Friday’s vote, the director of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation said “we’ve come a long way together…we’re with you, and we believe in what you’re doing.”

Because of the size of California’s economy, and the state’s influence over the clean air standards of 12 other states, automakers are often forced to follow CARB standards nationwide, rather than to produce a different set of cars for California as for the rest of the country.  This is why so many automakers have been lobbying the EPA to drop emissions standards, and are excited about the possible removal of California’s waiver.

Automakers have claimed that these new rules will cost them $200 billion to implement, which I-thought-he-was-EPA-head-but-apparently-he’s-an-auto-industry-spokesman Scott Pruitt recently echoed in an op-ed.  They also claim that only 3.5% of their current vehicles will be able to meet the 2025 emissions rules without significant updates.

Incidentally there is one automaker, which has even been making cars for ten years at this point, which will be able to meet the new emissions targets with 100% of their current and future models, including the quickest production car in the world, without having to spend any extra money to re-engineer those models.  This automaker has also been growing their sales by more than 50% each year for the past few years, has the highest customer satisfaction in the industry, and is handily outselling “competing” vehicles from automakers with a hundred years or more worth of experience in the industry.

You’ve probably guessed which automaker that is at this point.  And for comparison, as of 2014, Tesla’s CAFE fleet performance was 278.9mpg, nearly nine times the required level for 2014 and more than five times what the required level will be in 2025.  And lest the argument be made that this automaker is only a “niche” company, last year they held potentially the largest product launch ever (if counted by total value of reserved units), with tens of thousands of people waiting in lines overnight outside stores to put down actual money to reserve a car they hadn’t even seen and wouldn’t get for more than a year.  And that car will also handily meet emissions goals – likely exceeding them even further than the Model S and X do.

Perhaps the industry could take this chance and learn from Tesla’s example, instead of whining and complaining about the “impossibility” of gradually improving their efficiency while remaining complicit in the environmental damage their products cause.

But let’s be fair to the automakers here.  If the waiver were removed, they could then stop spending money on silly things like “engineering” and “efficiency,” thus eliminating high-skilled domestic jobs and bringing us all back to the slow, smog-belching, unsafe cars of yesteryear, and increasing our dependence on foreign oil in the process.  A noble effort, to be sure.

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Avatar for Jameson Dow Jameson Dow

Jameson has been driving electric vehicles since 2009, and has been writing about them and about clean energy for since 2016.

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