An increasing number of states are looking to follow the precedent set by California and adopt stricter vehicle emissions standards as the Biden administration appears poised to green light those efforts.
The Virginia legislature this past week passed legislation to toughen its emission rules, and similar proposals are in the works in Minnesota and Nevada.
If successful, those states would join the 13 others, plus Washington, D.C., that have adopted California’s vehicle tailpipe emissions standard. During the Trump era, that standard was taken out of play.
For years, California was allowed by the federal government to set its own standards. The Trump administration revoked that authority, sparking a legal battle that’s yet to be resolved.
But as the Biden administration appears poised to reverse the Trump policy, states are laying the groundwork for implementing their own vehicle regulations.
“We’re seeing now that there’s almost a critical mass of states that have started to adopt these standards, and so it is going to provide a strong market signal that that’s the direction we need to go in order to reduce air pollution and to meet our state as well as national climate targets,” said Matthew Goetz, a senior associate at the Georgetown Climate Center.
Virginia took a major step toward signing onto the tougher California standards by sending a bill to Gov. Ralph Northam (D) that aims for implementation with model year 2024 vehicles. Northam is expected to sign the measure into law, which would task the state’s Air Pollution Control Board with adopting the regulation.
Minnesota is in the process of adopting a similar rule, having held a public hearing on it this past week. In Nevada, a proposed regulation would adopt the standards. And New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan GrishamMichelle Lynn Lujan GrishamDemocrats lean into vaccine mandates ahead of midterms Hochul makes New York the 31st state to have had a female governor New Mexico indoor mask mandate returns with new vaccine requirements MORE (D) has expressed interest in having her state sign on.
Tighter standards for tailpipe emissions are expected to ultimately result in a greater share of electric or other low-emissions vehicles being sold in the U.S.
“It’s really sending a signal to the automakers that Americans want clean cars,” said Katherine Garcia, deputy director of national policies for the Sierra Club's Clean Transportation for All campaign.
“They want to have access to these cleaner cars because of the need for improved air quality and to address the climate crisis.”
In the U.S., the transportation industry is responsible for 28 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, the largest share of any sector.
The Trump administration revoked a waiver allowing California to set its own standard, issuing a rule in 2019 that gave the federal government the sole authority to set emissions standards.
The rule has been challenged in court, though litigation is currently paused until further notice following a request from the Biden administration.
In its request, the administration cited “the prerogative of the executive branch to reconsider the policy decisions of a prior Administration,” indicating that it may reverse the Trump position in court.
Administration officials have separately identified the rule as one of dozens they would seek to review, and if it’s not struck down in court, the administration could still reverse course through the regulatory process.
“If that waiver is not reinstated, this [Virginia] bill that’s going to become law has no force. But we fully expect that the Biden EPA will, in fact, reinstate that waiver,” said Walton Shepherd, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Virginia policy director.
Some states, including California, have recently taken further steps to reduce vehicle emissions.
California Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomBiden administration launches new national initiative to fight homelessness Equity is key to resilience — three ways make it a priority Juan Williams: Shame on the anti-mandate Republicans MORE (D) last year issued an executive order that would seek to have all passenger cars and trucks emit zero emissions by 2035 and require medium- and heavy-duty vehicles sold in the state to do the same by 2045.
New Jersey and Massachusetts have signaled that they will join in that effort.
Garcia, of the Sierra Club, said California is already working on the next generation of clean car standards, which could incorporate the goals set forth in Newsom’s 2020 executive order.
“What the advocates are anticipating is that when the California Air Resources Board announces what the draft regulation is...it will be grounded in the executive order,” she said.