(CN) --- Scrapping another Trump-era environmental policy, the Biden administration on Thursday dropped plans to roll back vehicle emissions standards and said California and other states could resume with their own rigorous fuel economy rules.
The announcement by the U.S. Department of Transportation cements a critical win for California, which can again force automakers to produce cleaner, more fuel efficient vehicles to gain access to its lucrative market.
California and a collection of states have been locked in a legal fight over car emissions standards for nearly three years, following then-President Donald Trump’s push to ease regulations on the auto industry. But shortly after taking office, President Joe Biden directed the department to scrap his predecessor’s policy.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the move reflects Biden’s commitment to cutting greenhouse gas emissions and will help fight climate change.
"The transportation sector is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gases in our economy --- which means it can and must be a big part of the climate solution," he said in a statement.
The Trump administration stunned state officials and environmentalists in August 2018 when it proposed rolling back vehicle emissions and fuel economy standards that were intended to nearly double passenger vehicle’s fuel economy and halve their carbon emissions by 2025.
Trump attempted to cast the move as part of his war on red tape, saying it would free companies from regulatory burdens and lead to cheaper cars.
The move incited lawsuits by California and a coalition of prominent environmental groups, but a variety of major automakers welcomed the easing of the Obama-era rules. Within months of the filing of the federal lawsuits, companies like Toyota, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler aligned with the federal government’s push for one nationwide emissions standard, while others like Ford, Honda and Volkswagen said they would comply with California’s regulations.
Sensing the changing political winds in wake of the 2020 election, GM and others flip-flopped and pulled out of the pending lawsuits between California and the feds. GM doubled up on its about-face shortly after and announced it was going to phase out gasoline cars and go all electric by 2035.
While the lawsuits are still pending in federal court, Thursday’s announcement signals the fight is all but done.
The move directs the transportation department to withdraw portions of the SAFE I Rule implemented under Trump that prevented California and others from pursuing standards stricter than the federal level. Acting Administrator Dr. Steven Cliff acknowledged the rules set by California and implemented by over dozen others have been successful in fighting smog.
"States have been leading the way, especially over the last four years, when it comes to cleaning up pollution and addressing climate change," Cliff said. "[The] proposed rule would remove unnecessary barriers to state leadership in regulating greenhouse gases and other air pollutants that spew from the tailpipes of cars."
California was the first state to implement fuel efficiency standards and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has renewed its waiver over 100 different times since the 1970s. Officials view the unique ability as the linchpin of the state’s air quality laws and argued in court the Trump administration’s shift could damage public health.
The waiver is a powerful bargaining chip for the state as for decades it’s forced automakers to continually produce more efficient cars. The industry can hardly afford to ignore the state mandates, as more personal cars were sold in California in 2018 than any other state.
The withdrawal comes on the same day Biden promised world leaders the U.S. would strive to slash carbon emissions by 52% by the end of the decade. He claims the ambitious goal can be met by reducing vehicle emissions, updating energy infrastructure and a flood of new green jobs.
California officials applauded Thursday’s Earth Day announcements and urged the Biden administration to consider adopting the state’s emissions rule as the federal standard.
U.S. Senator Alex Padilla, D-Calif., said he was glad to see Trump’s “frivolous” rule get junked.
“California is a national leader in the fight against climate change and eliminating toxic pollution from our transportation sector because we have seen how polluted air endangers our communities, “Padilla said in a statement. “I continue to urge President Biden to take national action on clean car standards. California has provided a model for the country, working with auto manufacturers to make ambitious targets possible.”
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