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California Officials Pledge Not To Roll Back Fuel Efficiency Standards


For more on this story, we turn now to California, which has long lead the nation on clean cars. Lauren Sommer covers energy and the environment from member station KQED. Hi.


SIEGEL: California officials have said that they will not back off the fuel economy standards established under President Obama. In fact, a special provision of the Clean Air Act allows them to keep higher standards. Explain that to us.

SOMMER: Yeah, California has a longstanding power, actually, to have tougher rules for cars. And it goes back to the 60s, actually, because California had a really serious smog problem. And so when Congress got around to writing the Clean Air Act, California was already regulating air pollution, and they actually wrote in special power for California to have these rules.

Now, what happens is when every five years or so when California wants to make rules for the next set of cars coming out, they have to go to the EPA to apply for a waiver to have these rules - basically, special permission for these car rules. And that's what we've been hearing about recently.

SIEGEL: This is the California waiver as it's known. Under President Obama, the waiver was extended. There were, in California, stricter carbon emissions rules for vehicles both there and in a dozen or so other states. That means that about a third of the cars sold in the U.S. today are subject, not to federal rules, but to California's rules. Could EPA head Scott Pruitt revoke the waiver, easing pressure on automakers?

SOMMER: Yeah. If that happened, it would be unprecedented. There's never been a waiver that's been revoked. Now, what we've heard from the White House is this might be something that they deal with when they release the fuel economy standards next year. They may have to deal with California when that comes out.

The reason that automakers care about this issue is because they don't like making two different products. It's expensive for them. So in the past, California's rules have really driven the national car market when it's had tougher clean car rules, and that's what's at stake here for automakers.

SIEGEL: Well, assuming that there is a potential conflict a year out, what have state officials said about the steps they would take to fight Washington on this?

SOMMER: Yeah. California's Governor Jerry Brown has said, we plan to defend California's environmental rules to the nail. He said, we've got the lawyers, and we're ready. And the last time California ran into trouble on this was actually back in 2007 under the Bush administration.

California had applied for a clean car waiver. The Bush administration had denied it. It went to court, but before it was decided, Obama came into office and granted California's waiver. So it's fair to say that if this happens this time around, it will be a lawsuit. But a lot of people are curious about that. I mean, if California wins that lawsuit, it would really cement the state's ability to have tougher environmental rules.

SIEGEL: The phrase California waiver is a little confusing because it makes people think if you're exempt from the rules, you can have a looser situation. This is the case of getting a waiver so you can have tougher regulations. And California, as a result, has been a big leader in the fuel-efficient cars, electric cars. Are people in California expecting a slowdown on that score?

SOMMER: Yeah. I mean, that's one of the other big issues that's wrapped up on all of this is that California has very ambitious goals for cleaner cars like electric cars and hydrogen cars - what are known as zero emission cars. They actually want to see 15 percent of California's car sales be electric or hydrogen by 2025. It's very ambitious.

And right now, it's about three percent of car sales here in California, and it's been hovering around there for two years. So California says without the ability to have these tougher car rules and incentives for cleaner cars, there's no way that California can meet its ambitious goals.

SIEGEL: If the state is in fact forced to adopt lower standards, can California reach the emissions reductions goals it's set for, say, the year 2030, which is a pretty ambitious goal, I gather.

SOMMER: Yeah. State officials have said there's no way that the state will meet its climate goals. Cars are the number one source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state. You know, Californians love their cars. But the other thing that California officials say is at stake is air pollution.

The Central Valley has some of the worst air quality in the country, and that was the original reason that California wanted to have these tougher car rules is to actually clean up the air.

SIEGEL: Reporter Lauren Sommer of member station KQED in San Francisco. Thanks.

SOMMER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRETTY LIGHTS SONG, "MY ONLY HOPE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.