California, 23 other states sue NHTSA over auto emissions limits

California AG Xavier Becerra, Gov. Gavin Newsome, and the state’s ARB led a coalition of 24 AGs and Los Angeles and New York in suing the Trump administration over its Sept. 19 preemption of California’s motor vehicle and GHG emissions standards.

California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra (D), Gov. Gavin Newsome (D), and the state’s Air Resources Board led a coalition of 24 attorneys general and the cities of Los Angeles and New York in suing the Trump administration over its Sept. 19 preemption of the Golden State’s motor vehicle and greenhouse gas emissions standards (OGJ Online, Sept. 20, 2019).

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and US Environmental Protection Agency jointly issued an action that will let the federal government set uniform emissions standards nationwide for automobiles and light-duty trucks. It was a response to US President Donald Trump’s Sept. 18 announcement that a provision under the 1963 Clean Air Act allowing California to set its own emissions limits would be revoked (OGJ Online, Sept. 19, 2019).

EPA first issued a waiver in 2013 authorizing California to set stricter motor vehicle emissions limits because of its unique atmospheric conditions. Thirteen other states and the District of Columbia adopted similar restrictions. The lawsuit contends that the Trump administration’s preemption is unlawful and should be vacated.

“Two courts have already upheld California’s emissions standards, rejecting the argument the Trump administration resurrects to justify its misguided preemption rule. Yet the administration insists on attacking the authority of California and other states to tackle air pollution and protect public health,” Becerra said.

“The Oval Office is really not a place for on-the-job training. President Trump should have at least read the instruction manual he inherited when he assumed the presidency, in particular the chapter on respecting the Rule of Law,” the attorney general said.

Becerra said the Trump administration is attempting to declare California greenhouse gas and zero-emission vehicle standards preempted under the 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act (EPCA) with arguments that multiple courts have rejected. In doing so, NHTSA, a US Department of Transportation agency, is overstepping authority it received from Congress and ignore federal lawmakers’ careful and repeated preservation of California’s authority, Becerra said.

In the lawsuit, filed in US District Court for the District of Columbia, California and the other plaintiffs argue that the administration’s revocation of the waiver under EPCA ostensibly to establish a uniform national motor vehicle emissions limit program is unlawful because NHTSA:

• Purports to exercise authority that Congress has not granted the agency: namely, to decree what EPCA does or does not preempt.

• Imagines an inherent conflict between two sets of rules, California’s GHG and ZEV standards and NHTSA’s fuel economy standards, that have coexisted for years.

• Willfully misreads EPCA as preempting state emission standards it explicitly directed NHTSA to account for, and as implicitly repealing portions of the CAA.

• Ignores the authority and intent of Congress, which has repeatedly reaffirmed and embraced California’s authority over the last 4 decades.

• Disregards the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act by failing to assess or analyze the damage that the agency’s Preemption Rule would inflict on the environment and public health.

• Acts arbitrarily and capriciously by failing to explain about-faces from its previous positions or its reasons for acting.

• Fails to respect states’ authority to protect public health and welfare and ignores the adverse effect the Preemption Rule would have in California, where passenger vehicles and other mobile sources are the largest sources of multiple pollutants.

• Disregards the role these standards play in helping California and other states meet National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

Contact Nick Snow at

More in HSE