Traffic flows east on the Interstate 10 freeway down FasTrak express lanes and regular lanes in Los Angeles last week as President Donald Trump announced that his administration is revoking California's authority to set its own stricter emissions standards.
Traffic flows east on the Interstate 10 freeway down FasTrak express lanes and regular lanes in Los Angeles last week as President Donald Trump announced that his administration is revoking California's authority to set its own stricter emissions standards. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/Getty)

Last week, President Donald Trump announced that he’s revoking California’s waiver under the Clean Air Act to regulate vehicle tailpipe emissions. Many Americans may have given this little thought. Maybe this was just another attempt (like his disparaging comments about homelessness in San Francisco) to “troll” California Democrats and former President Barack Obama, who supported the tougher rules. Perhaps those of us who are cheered by government deregulation figured it was more of the same. But what is really amounts to is this: a disaster in the making. Not just for the environment, not just for climate change, but for U.S. car manufacturers, for global competitiveness, for consumer prices — and for almost every segment of the population except the oil industry, which will see demand for its product rise.

Maryland is right in the headlights of this runaway policy, too. Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, has expressed support for litigation brought by Attorney General Brian Frosh, a Democrat, to defend the California emissions rules which are also the standard in Maryland, one of 13 states that follow California’s lead. This is no surprise. The governor two months ago joined more than 20 fellow governors protesting the Trump administration’s decision to relax vehicle fuel efficiency standards, too. That he is not a climate change denier might have something to do with it. But it also reflects concern about ground-level ozone, the unhealthy smog (sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulates) to which vehicle emissions are a major contributor. Baltimore has some of the worst air pollution in the nation — often ranked just behind major cities like New York, Chicago, Detroit and Boston.

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And then there’s the adverse impact on the economy and on consumers. U.S. automakers have actually opposed Mr. Trump’s freeze on emissions standards. They want the more restrictive regulations adopted by the Obama administration years ago because there’s an international demand for cleaner cars and because a single standard is easier to follow. Manufacturers are already well on the road to compliance (and similarly opposed the decision to relax mileage standards last year). Indeed, four major car makers had already struck a deal with California, an act the Trump administration now perceives as a possible antitrust violation. Meanwhile, producing vehicles that require more frequent refills will raise demand for gasoline, so prices at the pump will rise. One nonpartisan think tank estimates the added cost to consumers of $160 billion through 2050.

Drivers make their way along Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles on September 18, 2019, the same day President Donald Trump announced that his administration is revoking California's authority to set its own stricter emissions standards.
Drivers make their way along Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles on September 18, 2019, the same day President Donald Trump announced that his administration is revoking California's authority to set its own stricter emissions standards. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/Getty)

The good news is that this is clearly headed to court, and the Trump administration will not be able to completely sabotage U.S. vehicle emissions standards prior to the 2020 election. And it’s so clearly a handout to oil companies that one wonders who exactly this is designed to please beyond that one special interest? It’s a given that Mr. Trump won’t carry a blue state like California in next year’s general election, but what about the 13 states that depend on cleaner cars to reduce their air quality red alert days? The list includes Pennsylvania, an important swing state. Earlier this year, the American Lung Association gave the Philadelphia area an "F" for its worsening ozone smog.

More worrisome, however, is that the rollback may be part of a broader Trump administration initiative to get the Supreme Court to reverse its view of carbon dioxide as a pollutant that can be regulated under the Clean Air Act. Should the nation’s highest court become a climate change denier, then it’s “Katie bar the door to sea level rise, wildfires, droughts, flooding" and on and on. Any hope that the U.S. could return to its role of leadership against this global threat will be lost. Even a more rational Congress might take years to get the nation back on track.

Remember those days when Republicans believed in states’ rights? Surely, that claim has officially run out of gas given the Trump administration’s unwillingness to allow California to protect its citizens from noxious vehicle emissions. In a perfect world, the EPA would not be battling California; it would be enforcing the law and protecting the public interest. In a rational one, the executive branch wouldn’t go to war against California, consumers, auto makers, the nation’s economy and the right to breathe clean air.

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