The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, marks the latest round in an escalating fight between the White House and California officials over how quickly the nation’s auto fleet must increase its fuel-efficiency. Already, the feud has led to several legal skirmishes, a divided automotive industry and uncertainty in the nation’s car market.
In mid-September, the Trump administration acted to revoke California’s decades-old ability to set air pollution standards for cars, pickup trucks and SUVs that go beyond those required by the federal government. California’s authority to set such standards dates back to the Clean Air Act of 1970.
The administration’s move was a high-profile example in a broad campaign to undermine Obama-era policies aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions that fuel climate change.
“The Trump administration is on very weak footing in its attempt to revoke the waiver,” said Richard L. Revesz, an environmental and regulatory law expert at New York University’s law school. He added that the “action is unprecedented” and that the Clean Air Act “does not contemplate the possibility that the federal government would revoke a waiver that had already been granted.”
Asked about the lawsuit Friday, EPA spokeswoman Molly Block said the agency does not comment on pending litigation. But she said the administration had the right to push ahead with its revised mileage standards and make “it clear that federal law preempts state and local tailpipe greenhouse gas emissions standards” as well as those for zero-emission vehicles.
“This action will help ensure that there will be one, and only one, set of national fuel economy and greenhouse gas emission standards for vehicles,” Block added.
California and 22 other states, along with several cities, had filed a separate federal lawsuit in September against the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That suit argued that the efforts to preempt California from setting more ambitious emissions standards “exceeds NHTSA’s authority, contravenes Congressional intent, and is arbitrary and capricious, and because NHTSA has failed to conduct the analysis required under the National Environmental Policy Act.”
The latest filing in the D.C. Circuit also includes a petition asking the court to review NHTSA’s effort to preempt California’s right to set tailpipe emission standards.
California enjoys an exemption under the 1970 Clean Air Act that allows it to get a federal waiver to set more stringent air pollution standards; other states can follow the California standard. EPA granted the state a waiver to set tailpipe emission standards in 2009, which is the one the agency is trying to pull back.
The current standoff began last year, when NHTSA and EPA jointly issued the Trump administration’s proposal last year to revoke California’s “waiver” as part of a rule that would freeze mileage standards for these vehicles at roughly 37 miles per gallon from 2020 to 2026. The Obama-era standards had required these fleets to average nearly 51 mpg by model year 2025.
In July, California forged an agreement after months of secret negotiations with four companies — Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW of North America — under which they pledged to produce fleets averaging nearly 50 mpg by model year 2026. The Justice Department has opened an inquiry into whether that accord violated antitrust law.
Meanwhile, last month other automakers including General Motors, Toyota and Fiat Chrysler, intervened in ongoing litigation on behalf of the Trump administration, saying they support increased fuel efficiency but that the federal government has the “sole purview” for setting national standards.
The episode has exposed an rare policy rift within the automotive industry — one that could pit powerful auto manufacturers industry giants against one another in a protracted legal battle.
Emissions from the transportation sector, including cars and trucks, now rank as the largest single source of greenhouse gases in the United States.
And while some of the largest auto manufacturers have now sided with the Trump administration in its legal fight with California, Americans themselves appear to support stricter mileage targets. A Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation released in September found that 66 percent of Americans oppose Trump’s plan to freeze fuel efficiency standards rather than enforce the Obama administration’s targets for 2025.
A nearly identical 67 percent majority said they support state governments setting stricter fuel efficiency targets than the federal government. Among Californians, the survey found that 68 percent oppose Trump’s relaxation of mileage standards, while 61 percent support California’s stricter standards.
Currently, 13 states and the District of Columbia have vowed to adhere to California’s standards if they diverge from the federal government’s. The District also joined California in the suit filed Friday.