Automakers side with California in lawsuit over climate change, tailpipe emissions

Dale Kasler
The Sacramento Bee

California’s fight to regain its leadership role on regulating carbon emissions from automotive tailpipes is getting help from an unlikely ally: the car industry.

Carmakers have fought with California officials for decades over air-pollution regulations. The industry initially sided with former President Donald Trump when he announced he was planning to strip California of its unique power set its own guidelines over greenhouse gas emissions.

President Joe Biden’s administration announced in March it was reversing Trump’s decision, restoring California’s ability to set tougher standards than the nation as a whole. But 17 Republican state attorneys general sued Biden’s administration, saying it was unfair to let California have such authority.

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West Virginia’s attorney general, Patrick Morrissey, said such “favoritism violates the states’ equal sovereignty.”

On Tuesday, in a brief filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, five automakers rallied to California’s defense, saying the state’s tough mandates are helping them transition to an era of electric vehicles.

“California’s role as a leader in driving reductions in emissions from motor vehicles is critical to enabling the automobile industry to address these challenges effectively,” lawyers for Ford Motor Co., Volkswagen Group, BMW, Honda and Volvo told the court.

The federal Clean Air Act, signed into law by Richard Nixon, gives California authority to set air pollution rules that surpass the federal government’s, so long as the Environmental Protection Agency agrees. The wrinkle in the law was a nod to California’s severe smog problems.

Presidents have affected California emissions regulations

The EPA signed off on California’s strict rules dozens of times, often to the dismay of the auto industry. California’s standards became the national standards, as manufacturers couldn’t adjust their assembly lines to account for different states’ rules.

The EPA, under George W. Bush, rejected California’s request to impose rules scaling back automotive greenhouse gas emissions. When Barack Obama replaced Bush in the White House, he restored California’s rules, but struck a compromise that called for emissions to be reduced at a somewhat slower pace.

In this file photo, morning traffic begins to swell on the 101 Freeway in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

That compromise held until Trump took office in 2017. Two months after being sworn in, he visited a General Motors plant in Michigan and told cheering autoworkers he would scrap the Obama-California rules. “We are going to ensure that any regulations we have protect and defend your jobs, your factories,” Trump said.

It wasn’t long, though, before some automakers peeled away from Trump. In 2019 Ford, Honda, BMW and Volkswagen, later joined by Volvo, announced they were willing to go along with California’s plan for cutting carbon emissions. The deal was a coup for Gov. Gavin Newsom, who gleefully announced the decision. After Biden defeated Trump in the 2020 election, other big carmakers such as GM pledged their support for California’s rule-making.

Tuesday’s legal filing further underscores the auto industry’s increasing commitment to electrifying its vehicles fleets – and its pivot away from fossil fuels. Ford has said its committed to spending $50 billion on electric vehicle production by 2026. Volkswagen has its own $40 billion “electrification development plan.”

For his part, Newsom has issued an executive order that would ban the sales of new gas-powered cars by 2035.