Shifting Gears, Driving Progress

The Los Angeles skyline.

By Bethany A. Davis Noll
May 6, 2021

In the 1950s, a researcher in California discovered that several of the pollutants in vehicle emissions combined to form smog. Because of the awful impact of that smog on California skies, the state began regulating those emissions — even before there were any federal standards. When Congress later authorized national standards, it preserved California’s role by authorizing EPA to grant California a waiver to set its own stricter standards. The statute also authorizes other states to adopt California’s standards.

During the Trump administration, the federal government lowered the stringency of the federal greenhouse gas emissions standards. And California fought hard in court — backed by the attorneys general of 22 states and Washington, D.C. — to defend its right to keep its more stringent standards.

But now, the new Biden administration is taking significant steps to reverse course and address the climate impact of the transportation sector — currently the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. In late April, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced its proposal to restore California’s authority to set its own vehicle emissions standards. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) proposed to repeal a Trump-era rule that limited the ability of states to regulate vehicles’ greenhouse gas emissions or establish electric vehicle mandates. The Biden administration is reportedly planning to finalize a new set of vehicle emissions standards by July. And NHTSA is reviewing the Trump-era decision to reduce the penalties that automakers pay for violating fuel economy standards.

The administration has yet to announce the structure of its coming vehicle emissions standards. It could very well be that EPA, NHTSA, and California come together on a uniform nationwide standard, as they did when Obama-era standards were promulgated in 2009. While that structure is considered and debated, it is worth recalling California’s special role on vehicle emissions.  When it comes to environmental statutes, federal standards often operate as a floor, and states are authorized to implement more stringent standards. This basic arrangement is reflected in Congress’s approach to regulating vehicle emissions, with California’s leadership role preserved given its history on the issue.

One benefit of that structure is that strong state standards can lead to smaller-scale experimentation — a key driver of innovation. Since it promulgated its own vehicle standards, California has been a laboratory, with its limits spurring the invention of the catalytic convertor, among other advancements. And manufacturers have continued to thrive both in California — the largest vehicle market in the country — and in the rest of the United States, even as the state’s stricter standards have cut emissions of carbon monoxide, particulate matter, nitrogen oxide, and hydrocarbons. When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions standards, manufacturers would likely also manage just fine even if California’s standards were stricter than the national standards. Those standards require automakers to meet a fleet-wide emissions benchmark, which provides manufacturers with significant flexibility in how they reach compliance. Automakers already contend with differing standards abroad; structuring domestic sales to meet stricter standards in California and other states that choose to adopt them would draw on those existing practices.

California’s recent policies, and those of other states, could also again spur new innovation. In January, the state announced a goal of ending sales of new “internal combustion passenger vehicles by 2035.” In Washington, the state’s legislature passed a plan to phase out sales of new gasoline and diesel-powered cars by 2030. New York’s legislature recently passed a bill to require 100% zero-emission sales of new cars and trucks by 2035. And as just a smattering of recent news articles shows, technologies are being studied and pushed to aid in what is being seen as the coming inevitable transition to an electric vehicle market. This should be an exciting ride.


Bethany A. Davis Noll is an expert in administrative and environmental law and an experienced litigator. She is Executive Director of the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center.