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State Level Implications of Pruitt's Vehicle Emissions Rollback

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt's attempted rollback of vehicle emissions standards is dangerous, misguided, and will mean dirtier cars and a less competitive auto industry. How do we know this? We have been there before. 

Prior to 2008, the auto industry built too many huge and high-profit-margin gas guzzling SUVs rather than a diversified fleet of options for consumers. Their shortsightedness left the industry dangerously exposed to rising gas prices. And, in the end, it took tens of billions of dollars in government aid to save the industry from their own poor choices.

For a time, the industry was ready to admit their fault. They came to the table and negotiated improved fuel economy standards in line with goals set by other countries. Unfortunately, the industry saw an opportunity in Scott Pruitt’s anti-regulatory mania to return to their old irresponsible ways. Once again, they are claiming that they just can’t make and sell cleaner cars. Even though cleaner vehicles will save American consumers over a trillion dollars in fuel costs and billions more in health and environmental benefits, far outweighing the additional $50 it might add to the sticker price, Pruitt is ready to hand his lobbyist pals whatever they ask for.

The EPA has a lot of power in this area. Section 209(a) of the Clean Air Act has a “federal preemption” provision that says “no state...shall adopt or attempt to enforce any standard relating to the control of emissions from new motor vehicles…” Fortunately, however, California was regulating emissions from vehicles long before the EPA, so the Clean Air Act allows them to continue to do so under a 209(b) waiver as long as their program is no less stringent than the federal one. The Act also gives other states the ability to choose between the EPA’s program and the California one. Twelve states, including Pennsylvania, have opted into the California program.

No one thinks it’s ideal to have two different programs. In fact, one of the purposes of the “Tier III” emissions controls that are at issue was to harmonize the standards. Now though, instead of continuing with the agreed-upon standards, anti-environmental and anti-regulatory activists are asking Pruitt to revoke the California waiver. If he does, that would leave Pennsylvania with no choice but to accept more pollution from our cars and worse gas mileage.

That’s bad enough, but there are additional complications. Pennsylvania made its clean vehicle program part of its “State Implementation Plan” (SIP) for meeting federal ozone standards. Currently, 17 of our counties are out of compliance and we need to demonstrate we are adopting permanent, quantifiable, and enforceable emissions reductions to clean up their air. This SIP program also contains an “anti-backsliding” provision, where losing an enforceable strategy, like the clean vehicle program, requires the state to find something else to take its place.

As Pennsylvanians, we have a right to clean air, but we also expect our government to pick the most cost-effective programs to achieve that goal. Even though vehicles are responsible for about a third of the pollution in the state and the clean car program is highly cost effective, federal preemption means we can’t regulate them on our own -- we need the California waiver. If Pruitt revokes that, we may need to get additional emissions reductions from businesses in the state -- no matter what the cost.

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