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Climate and Environment

Biden Has Restored California’s Power To Regulate Car Emissions. Here’s Why It Matters

LA City Hall in the center of a black-and-white photograph. A low-hanging haze surrounds the skyscraper.
A smog-shrouded view of downtown Los Angeles on Oct. 7, 1968.
(Los Angeles Public Library archive)
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The Biden administration has restored California’s special pollution-fighting powers. At least, that’s what we’d write if this were an episode of Captain Planet.

More technically speaking, the Environmental Protection Agency this week restored California’s authority to set its own, stricter limits on tailpipe emissions from cars and light trucks.

The EPA’s decision reversed a Trump-era move to strip California of its unique power. No other state in the U.S. has the authority to write its own standards — but they can adopt California’s.

“If we're going to tackle the climate crisis, we're all going to have to do our part,” state Attorney General Rob Bonta said in a statement. “And California's standards — which have been adopted by 15 states and counting — are some of the best tools we have to reduce emissions.”

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But why does California have special permission to write its own standards? The answer hearkens back to Los Angeles’ own smog-choked history.

We explored that history with Cara Horowitz, co-executive director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the UCLA School of Law. We’ve condensed our interview with her for length and clarity:

The Beginning

Q: How did California start regulating car emissions?

In the 1940s, Los Angeles realized it had among the country’s worst smog problems — and created what was then the country’s first pollution control district here in Southern California. So in the 1950s and ‘60s, California began regulating air pollution from cars in really innovative ways.

Tall buildings in a black-and-white photograph shrouded in smog with a four-lane freeway and freeway exit signs below.
Downtown Los Angeles office buildings nearly disappear into smog as seen from near Elysian Park along the Pasadena Freeway in 1979.
(L.A. Public Library photo archive
Los Angeles Herald Examiner Photo Collection)

It was work in California, for example, that led to the creation of the catalytic converter and then the adoption of that technology throughout the U.S. We were requiring car manufacturers to reduce the air pollution that was coming out of the tailpipes. It was that work that also led to the banning of lead in gasoline for regular cars in the United States.

The science and law of air pollution control developed here first. California was out in front of really any jurisdiction in the United States on its approach to air pollution.

Q: The federal Clean Air Act came along in 1970 — and California got a special carve-out in that law. Why?

The Clean Air Act, generally speaking, says that air pollution from cars is a federal issue — because pollution and cars, by definition, cross state lines — so for the most part, the feds say, “We're going to take control of air pollution emission controls for cars.”

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But the feds also recognized that California was so far out in front, and they really didn't want to trample on California's authority to push for really ambitious air pollution standards for all different kinds of vehicles — passenger cars, medium-duty vehicles and heavy duty vehicles — and for all different kinds of pollutants from those vehicles. Many of those different standards require waivers.

So the Clean Air Act allows California to seek a waiver to create its own standards for emissions from cars so long as those standards are at least as protective of public health as the federal version. And then other states get a choice: They can go with the federal standard or the stronger California standard.

The federal government essentially deputizes California — and only California — to act as sort of an air super-regulator among states. And it’s worked. Cars today are 99% cleaner from an air pollution perspective than they were in the ‘60s when California began its regulatory crusade. So there’s no doubt that this has been tremendously successful.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Far more successful than this idea would've probably turned out…]

Q: How did automakers feel about these new rules — and California as a rule-maker?

In the early years of the Clean Air Act, I’d imagine the automakers were not happy about having an additional regulator in the mix — in addition to the federal regulators who were already requiring extra steps from their manufacturing processes.

However, the carmakers have gotten used to California as a regulator over time. California’s Air Resources Board (ARB) — the state’s really legendary air pollution control agency — has developed really strong relationships with industry over time.

The ARB regulators are not messing around when it comes to climate change. The transportation sector is the number one source of greenhouse gas emissions in California, and regulators know the state can't meet its very ambitious climate goals without tackling this sector head on.

So the ARB is pushing car manufacturers hard. But the only reason that they're able to do so is that the ARB regulators really understand the car manufacturers and their needs. I think they've worked hard for years to create a set of relationships that involve mutual trust and respect.

Q: It probably doesn’t hurt regulators’ cause that California’s a huge market for automakers.

Of course. California — together with the other states that wind up following California's path — does influence the design of cars in the U.S. for sure.

I also think manufacturers also have become quite savvy about directing some cars into the California market that comply with California standards and directing other cars elsewhere in the U.S. So I think both of those things are happening at the same time.

An aerial view of downtown Los Angeles and the highways that twist around it.
created by dji camera

The Trump Era

Q: In 2019, the Trump administration tried to strip California of its special power to regulate car emissions. What exactly was the Trump administration trying to overturn?

In 2002, California created the very first greenhouse gas standards for cars that had ever been adopted in the U.S.

At first, California sought permission from the George W. Bush administration — and got denied. This is the first time that a California waiver request under the Clean Air Act had ever been denied.

But that denial was short-lived. The Obama administration came into office and granted the waiver. By 2012, consumers were buying cars that weren’t only regulated for their gas mileage and for other pollutants — but also by a climate emissions standard.

California’s waiver also included a package of new standards for zero-emission vehicles — basically, for electric cars. This is all in the waiver at issue in this current fight.

Q: During the Trump administration, EPA officials argued that no one state should be empowered to basically "dictate standards for the rest of the country." What happened?

When the Trump administration withdrew that authority, that was the first time that a California waiver had ever been completely withdrawn.

In fact, there were a lot of scholars who didn't think the move was legally defensible. Also, state regulators had relied on this waiver. Car manufacturers had designed cars with the understanding that this regulation was in effect. The decision really did send shockwaves.

Q: What was the automakers’ reaction to the Trump administration doing what it did?

The automakers did not have a unified reaction, actually. Some carmakers are perfectly pleased to have California's authority removed — and, in fact, had urged the Trump administration to remove that authority.

But other carmakers decided to throw their lot in with California. They understood that the Trump administration's revocation of California's authority might not actually be legal. They figured — I think — that the Trump administration might be a one-term administration, and the next president might restore the waiver. They were looking for certainty.

So some of the big carmakers decided to see what kind of deal they could strike with California regulators. In fact, in 2019, four big car manufacturers [Ford, Honda, BMW and Volkswagen] did a deal with California regulators saying, "Look, we understand that you very well may get this authority back, and we're going to work with you to figure out a set of regulations that works for both of us."

Smog surrounds a skyline view of Downtown Los Angeles.
(Photo by Conor McDonough via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr)
((Photo by Conor McDonough via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr))

The Future

Q: What’s the significance of the Biden administration restoring California’s authority? Does it really matter, especially if California was able to work this out directly with the automakers?

The Biden administration’s decision is not a surprise, but I think it is important and does matter.

The transportation sector is the largest sectoral source of climate emissions. It would have been very hard for California to meet its incredibly ambitious climate goals without this authority restored. And for sure, the Trump administration may have had that in mind as it revoked the authority.

Under Biden, I think California is not likely to be too far out in front of the federal government in its approach to controlling emissions from cars and light trucks — but the Biden administration won't necessarily be in power forever, and California regulators have a 50-year history of pushing manufacturers to make cleaner cars. So giving California back that authority, I think, is quite meaningful.

Q: Couldn’t a future administration simply do what the Trump administration did? Or was this story a sign that California’s special authority is too much a part of how we regulate pollution?

Between Obama, Trump and now Biden, it has felt like we're on a bit of a pendulum — of creating, then revoking, then restoring authorities in the climate regulatory world.

I'm hoping, however, that the transportation sector is really at the cusp of a revolution in technology — especially in cars — that will endure no matter which administration is in power. There's really a push now for electric vehicles and for clean vehicles. There's a lot of momentum to transform the industry in a way that might even outpace regulators.

What questions do you have about K-12 education in Southern California?
Kyle Stokes reports on the public education system — and the societal forces, parental choices and political decisions that determine which students get access to a “good” school (and how we define a “good school”).