California moves to safeguard vehicle emissions rules from Trump rollback

California is firing back at the Trump administration with a plan to safeguard the state’s greenhouse gas emissions rules from a proposed federal rollback.

A state Air Resources Board proposal released Tuesday would force automakers to meet California’s existing standards on car and truck pollution, even if weaker ones are adopted by Trump administration.

California regulators said the clarification is a protective move intended to close a potential loophole automakers might use to elude compliance with tougher standards adopted jointly with the Obama administration.

Mary Nichols, who chairs the California Air Resources Board, said the changes make it clear to auto manufacturers that they will have to adhere to two different emissions standards: One for California and the dozen other states that follow its rules and another for the rest of the country.

It’s also an attempt by California to shore up its legal footing ahead of what is likely to be an extended court battle with the Trump administration. Last week the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration unveiled a plan to freeze fuel economy targets nationwide while moving to end California’s power to set its own more stringent standards and invalidate the state’s electric vehicle mandate.

“This is just one in a series of steps that the state is taking to make sure it is attacking on every legal front imaginable,” said Ann Carlson, a professor of environmental law at UCLA.

The move brings the U.S. one step closer to splitting its auto market in two. Automakers had asked the Trump administration to relax the rules, but don’t want the logistical headache of building two different models of cars for red states and blue states.

EPA acting administrator Andrew Wheeler met with Nichols last month and “has pledged to work in earnest with the state of California to find a solution,” agency spokesman James Hewitt said.

Cars and trucks are the dominant source of pollution in California, and state regulators say easing emissions rules jeopardizes their ability to meet climate and air pollution targets, including federal smog-reduction deadlines and state mandates to slash greenhouse gas emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. The Air Resources Board proposal says meeting those targets is crucial “to combat the effects of climate change, including raging wildfires, coastal erosion, disruption of water supply … and continuing health threats from air pollution.”

Weaker standards, left unaddressed, could slow progress fighting climate change, “waste billions of gallons of gasoline, and cost consumer money on fuel,” according to the proposal scheduled for consideration by the board on Sept. 27.

Photo: Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times