The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Reagan fought for California’s right to require tough fuel standards. Trump might try to reverse it.

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with Paulina Firozi


The Trump administration has drafted a plan to freeze fuel-efficiency standards for the nation’s cars and light trucks, reversing the Obama-era push for cleaner vehicles and marking one of President Trump’s most significant regulatory rollbacks to date.

As part of the far-reaching proposal expected to be released this week, the White House will also attempt to revoke California’s ability to set stricter tailpipe standards than those of the federal government. The move would set up an intense legal fight against California — and more than a dozen other states and the District of Columbia — that have adopted its standards and upend a policy that lawmakers of both parties have largely supported over the past half-century.

Although California officials and the Trump administration have clashed repeatedly over environmental policies, the state’s unique ability to write its own emissions standards has historically not been a political lightning rod. That may be about to change.

First, a little history. Smog in Los Angeles had become crippling at times throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s. As scientists focused on motor vehicle exhausts as a key culprit of air pollution, state officials sprung into action, developing the nation’s first vehicle emissions standards in 1966. The following year, the state’s new Republican governor, Ronald Reagan, established the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to undertake a statewide effort to address widespread air pollution.

Around the same time as it crafted clean air legislation for the country, Congress granted California special status, saying the state could request a “waiver” to require stricter tailpipe standards if it provided a compelling reason such regulations were needed. The auto industry, then as now, expressed concern over the idea of having to meet different standards in different states, but California eventually prevailed.

“It was very controversial, and it was very close,” David Vogel, a professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley, who has written about the state’s environmental history, said of the 1967 legislation that first gave the state its waiver ability. “But every California legislator in Washington uniformly supported the waiver request. Every official in the state, from Reagan on down, wanted California to be able to address its very bad pollution.”

Congress has repeatedly reaffirmed California’s right to request its waiver, and in 1977 said other states could adopt the state’s stringent car emissions standards. Along the way, emissions control strategies first adopted by California — catalytic converters, nitrous oxide regulations and “check engine” systems, to name a few — have become standard across the country.

“It’s had a transformational impact,” said Jody Freeman, an expert in environmental law and a professor at Harvard Law School. “It was directly responsible for many advancements that make cars better, stronger and more efficient.”

Over the decades, the Environmental Protection Agency has repeatedly approved waivers for California under the Clean Air Act, with the exception of late 2007, when the agency during the Bush administration denied the state a waiver for its tailpipe standards on the grounds that capping carbon dioxide emissions did not address a specific air pollution problem for California. California has applied for and received more than 130 waivers over the past 50 years, according to CARB.

California, along with other states, challenged the denial in court. In July 2009, after President Barack Obama took office, the EPA granted the state its waiver. That same year, the Obama administration reached a deal with California and the auto industry, setting the first carbon limits on tailpipe emissions and maintaining nationwide fuel economy standards.

But with the arrival of the Trump administration, California has faced its most serious opposition in years to its autonomy.

“California is not the arbiter of these issues,” then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt told Bloomberg TV this spring, foreshadowing the likely fight to come. While California sets state limits on greenhouse gas emissions, he added, “that shouldn’t and can’t dictate to the rest of the country what these levels are going to be.”

Should the Trump administration’s attempt to revoke California’s ability to set stricter emissions requirements succeed, state officials including the governor and attorney general have vowed to lead a fierce legal battle.

That fight would likely center, in part, on a 1975 energy law that gave the Department of Transportation authority to set fuel economy standards. Two federal district courts in 2007 rejected the argument that the 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act prohibits California from setting its own tailpipe standards, but the law remains unsettled on the matter.

In separate cases in Vermont and California, where two different Chrysler dealers had challenged California’s emissions limits, judges concluded that the state was allowed to impose its own standards, given the fact that it had received a waiver from EPA. “Congress has consistently acknowledged interplay and overlap between emissions reductions regulations and fuel economic regulations, and could not have intended that an EPA-approved emissions reduction regulation did not have the force of a federal regulation,” Judge William K. Sessions III wrote in Green Mountain Chrysler Plymouth Dodge v. Crombie.

If the Trump administration decides to launch a “wholesale assault” on California’s waiver ability, Vogel said, a resolution probably won’t come anytime soon.

“This will be bound up in the courts,” he said. “This will take forever.”

Freeman said such a drawn-out legal battle is avoidable and that it’s possible for the federal government to craft a deal with California that gives automakers flexibility in meeting fuel efficiency requirements while maintaining one national standard. But blowing up that balance, she said, probably will benefit no one — particularly consumers.

“What this does at a minimum is plunge the auto industry into a prolonged legal battle and years of regulatory uncertainty,” she said, “which is the one thing they say they don’t want.”

Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.

FEMA personnel chief Corey Coleman sexually harassed women for years, according to FEMA officials. (Video: Elyse Samuels/TWP)

— A “systemic problem”: A human resources official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency is under investigation for alleged widespread sexual harassment that spanned years and included hiring women as possible sexual partners for male employees, The Post’s Lisa Rein reports. Corey Coleman resigned last month from the agency and has not since been interviewed by FEMA, but administrator William “Brock” Long told The Post there was a “systemic problem going on for years.” “How many complaints were not heard? I’ve got to make sure we have a safe working environment for our employees,” Long said, noting that the problems go beyond Coleman, who has been the subject of a preliminary seven-month internal investigation. Such conduct went as far back as 2015, and was brought to the attention of the general counsel, who started the internal probe, after an employee made a direct complaint to Long, Rein reports.

“Long described a ‘toxic’ environment in the human resources department Coleman had led at FEMA headquarters, hiring dozens of men who were friends and college fraternity brothers and women he met at bars and on online dating sites — then promoting them to roles throughout the agency without going through proper federal hiring channels,” Rein reports. “Coleman then transferred some of the women in and out of departments, some to regional offices, so his friends could try to have sexual relationships with them.”

— “Climate kids” case continues: The Supreme Court on Monday denied the Trump administration’s request to stop a case brought forth by 21 youths to hold the federal government responsible for its contribution to climate change. But the high court also made a note in its ruling criticizing how broad the claims are. “The breadth of respondents’ claims is striking, however, and the justifiability of those claims presents substantial grounds for different of opinion,” the justices wrote, calling for the trial judge to take that into account, Bloomberg reports

— 11 new plants in Europe? Not so fast: Energy experts say there may not be much reality to Trump’s claims that Europe will build up to 11 new plants to boost exports of liquefied natural gas, The Post’s Steven Mufson reports. "In comments at the end of a joint news conference with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on Monday, Trump portrayed the commitment as a victory in his 'fantastic meeting' with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker last week," Mufson writes. "But while there have already been about a dozen proposals on the drawing boards, no more than three or four new plants will be built anytime soon. That’s because the existing 24 LNG import facilities now operating in Europe are running at about a quarter of their capacity... What’s more, there are limited tools the E.U. can use to speed up construction of new plants by private companies."

— A “commitment to transparency”: In a memo to the agency’s staff, acting EPA chief Andrew Wheeler highlighted efforts from the agency to increase transparency and praised the media for its “vital role in informing the public about the EPA’s actions,” according to the Hill, which obtained the memo. “We exist to serve the public,” Wheeler wrote. “As such, the public should trust our work. We are committed to earning and maintaining the public’s trust through transparency and accountability in our actions and civility and fairness in our public participation processes.” The memo also addressed how agency staff should respond to media requests, noting that “EPA staff should respect our internal deliberative processes and strive for accuracy and integrity in our communications… This will ultimately enhance public trust in the agency.”

— “Down payment on a new era”: Ahead of a visit to Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday that the United States is set to invest $113 million in the Indo-Pacific to boost technology, energy and infrastructure efforts. “These funds represent just a down payment on a new era in U.S. economic commitment to peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region,” Pompeo said in remarks to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Reuters reports.

— A post-Harvey insurance boom: In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, there has been an 18 percent hike in the number of flood insurance policies in the state, according to FEMA. That boost follows a long-term decreasing trend in the number of policies, the Associated Press reports. Of the households impacted by the hurricane's devastation last year, 80 percent did not have flood insurance. But experts are warning that the recent increases in policies may not last. “Residents tend to buy policies for a few years after big disasters then cancel because they feel the unused policy is an unnecessary expense, said Howard Kunreuther, co-director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Risk Management and Decision Processes Center,” per the AP. FEMA is trying to address this issue, announcing a program last year to reach a “moonshot goal” of doubling the number of structures under flood insurance coverage from 4 million to 8 million by 2022, per the report. 


— California is burning:

  • The Carr fire is already California’s 7th most destructive fire in state history. The blaze, which started on July 23 as a manageable fire and quickly spread, has burned more than 100,000 acres and destroyed 1,100 structures, CNN reports.
  • So far, six people have been killed due to the fire, and it was just 23 percent contained as of Monday night, as more than 3,300 fire personnel continued to try to tackle the blaze. “The Carr fire is burning so large and intensely that it created its own localized weather system, making it difficult for experts to predict which way the blaze will spread,” per the report. “Wildfires like this can get so hot they make pyrocumulus clouds, formations that look like mushroom clouds and can be seen for miles.
  • But officials on Monday seemed more optimistic about the potential of controlling the fire, The Post’s Kristine Phillips reports. “Firefighters are making good progress. There are certain areas of the fire that they’re able to go on with boots on the ground,” said Lisa Wilkolak, information officer for Carr Fire.
  • Meanwhile, fire crews in the state are battling about 17 other large fires. The six largest active blazes had burned through a total of 240,000 acres, the New York Times reports. “South of the Carr blaze, two fires in Mendocino County burned about 45,000 acres combined, and were each 5 percent contained,” per the Times. “And southwest, in Mariposa County, the Ferguson Fire near Yosemite had torn through 56,000 acres on Monday and was still just 30 percent contained after weeks of active burning.
The Carr Fire in Redding, Calif., has killed five people after a malfunctioning vehicle set off flames on July 23. (Video: Nani Sahra Walker, Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

— The climate’s impact on growing flames: Fire crews in California are battling unprecedented flames, and The Post’s Angela Fritz reports the warming climate is contributing to the factors that are making these fires so bad. Temperatures in the area have been peaking in the triple digits since last week, winds are picking up, humidity is dropping, and the soil is exceptionally dry in Northern California because of a hotter-than average summer and dry winter. And that’s just a piece of the puzzle.

Something else is occurring: “If you ask the crews on the ground, they will tell you it’s not just the hot and dry weather that’s making fires worse… For decades, officials depended on a tried-and-true process to prevent wildfires from spreading: fight them from downhill,” Fritz writes. “But KQED reports that firefighters say that process isn’t working as well anymore — the Carr Fire being an example — and no one has a clear explanation as to why… It is not resolved how climate change might shift or strengthen winds that blow wildfires downhill into mountain communities. But after wildfires in Greece killed more than 80 people, the World Meteorological Organization highlighted micro-scale winds as a key wildfire forecasting problem.”


— Electric future: Harley Davidson said it plans to launch its first electric bike in August 2019, and is planning up to five more electric models by 2022, Bloomberg reports. “These plans will cost Harley-Davidson as much as $550 million in operating investment and $275 million in capital investment through 2022,” per the report. “By then the company forecasts increasing revenue by as much as $1.5 billion and operating profit by as much as $250 million.”

— We’re going to need a bigger pipeline: There is so much oil being pumped in West Texas that the pipelines are overwhelmed, and bigger pipelines are in the works to resolve the congestion, the Wall Street Journal reports. “Bottlenecks have become a problem in the Permian Basin of Texas and New Mexico at the center of the shale boom,” per the report. “That is creating opportunity for pipeline builders, who are planning an array of new oil and gas conduits in Texas, where they see increased demand from customers willing to pledge to contracts. Epic Midstream Holdings, Plains All American Pipeline LP, and Phillips 66 in a partnership with refiner Andeavor are building new oil pipelines aimed at Corpus Christi that are set to add upward of 1.8 million barrels of combined capacity late next year.”



  • The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission holds a conference"
  • The Atlantic Council holds an event on “Deterring Russia: Proposed Sanctions Legislation and Implications for Energy."

Coming Up

  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a hearing on “Examining EPA’s Agenda: Protecting the Environment and Allowing America’s Economy to Grow” on Wednesday.
  • The Women’s Council on Energy and the Environment holds a discussion on the role of science in public policy on Thursday.

— A small victory: A photo of a highway patrol officer went viral after he helped rescue a month-old fawn from the Carr fire in Northern California, per the Associated Press.