California sues Trump administration for details on car emissions rollback decision

The state of California is suing the Trump administration for details behind the decision it made to lower the standards on tailpipe emissions for cars and trucks.

The suit filed by the Golden State on Friday demands the Trump administration release the underlying data and analysis it used to determine that it was lawful to weaken the existing emissions standards.

The lawsuit was filed by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Both agencies were responsible for jointly establishing the rule change, announced officially in August and called the Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicle Rule.

California officials argue the Trump administration failed to previously provide the details under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed in September.

“In a stark departure from prior rulemakings, critical information underlying EPA’s and NHTSA’s analyses was not disclosed,” CARB's suit read.

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“As very serious flaws in the agencies’ analyses and conclusions are evident — and the resulting proposals threaten public health — CARB submitted FOIA requests to both agencies for documents concerning vehicle fleet composition, new car sales, vehicle safety, battery technology, and other information that NHTSA and EPA used in proposing to roll back vehicle emission and fuel economy standards.”

California has long fought against the Trump administration’s proposal to weaken the national car emissions standards that were first established under the Obama administration. California has the authority to set its own greenhouse gas rules for cars under the Clean Air Act and a waiver granted by the Obama administration. Thirteen states follow California’s standards for cars sold in their borders, representing about 40 percent of the nation's vehicle market.

California is aligned with the current federal rules, thanks to regulators’ previous negotiations.

Representatives of the state argued that any weakening would threaten California’s right to maintain stringent air quality standards under the Clean Air Act. The state has some of the worst air quality in the nation.

The Trump administration’s new rule announced last August proposes to freeze emissions standards at their 2020 levels without further increasing their stringency. The standards determined under the Obama administration would continue to raise emissions standards in steps. The new rule has not yet been finalized nor implemented.

California’s attorney general promised at the time that the state would sue.

Friday’s lawsuit seeks to obtain various details pertaining to the information the Trump administration used to establish its basis for rolling back the rule — a method that appears to look to poke holes in the science the federal government relied on to show lowered regulations would maintain a similar level of pollution and emissions protection.

“Governor Newsom’s Administration is seeking release of these documents to shine a light on how and why the Trump Administration decided to arbitrarily roll back Obama-era clean air standards, and in doing so, do serious damage to America’s efforts to combat climate change,” read a statement from CARB. “Unless these documents are made public, California and other supporters of clean air will never know who or what industry players are behind the attempt to weaken clean car rules.”

The Trump administration has largely faced criticism that the rules appeared to benefit the fossil fuel industry. Legally the EPA cannot erase a rule without replacing it, and it must prove the new regulations still provide public health protections.

An EPA spokesperson said the agency can’t comment on pending litigation but is “committed to delivering a finalized SAFE rule that both improves vehicle safety, enhances consumer choice, and continues environmental progress.”

The Trump administration has argued the previous standards were unachievable and threatened the auto industry economy.

Conversations between EPA, NHTSA and California broke down in February.

In a joint statement, the White House, Department of Transportation and the EPA said the talks had not been fruitful, adding that the Trump administration will move forward with its plan to roll back the pollution standards.

“Despite the administration’s best efforts to reach a common-sense solution, it is time to acknowledge that CARB has failed to put forward a productive alternative since the SAFE Vehicles Rule was proposed,” the administration officials said.

“Accordingly, the administration is moving forward to finalize a rule later this year with the goal of promoting safer, cleaner, and more affordable vehicles.”

CARB Chairwoman Mary Nichols said the Trump administration is purposely failing to comply with the FOIA request.

“Since releasing the proposed rule last summer, the Trump Administration has repeatedly failed to comply with California’s FOIA request, and the reason is clear: They are unwilling to admit that the facts and analysis simply do not support their desired outcome,” Nichols said in a statement.

“This lawsuit will break down their silence and secrecy. The public has a right to see all the facts and analysis used to support a rollback that increases oil consumption, hurts consumers, and pumps more air pollution and hundreds of million tons of climate-changing gases into the atmosphere.”