UCLA legal experts weigh in on California’s groundbreaking agreement with automakers on fuel efficiency standards

July 25, 2019

In late July, California reached an agreement with four automakers—Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW—to continue increasing the fuel efficiency of their vehicle fleets by 3.7 percent annually from 2022 to 2026. The new agreement, which was negotiated by the California Air and Resource Board, presents a direct challenge to the Trump Administration’s attempts to weaken vehicle emission standards nationally. Following the announcement, UCLA faculty provided expert legal analysis on the agreement in several media stories.

Ann Carlson, co-director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the UCLA School of Law, told the Los Angeles Times that the agreement represents a “huge step forward” for the state of California because it undermines the Trump administration’s argument that automakers cannot meet higher fuel efficiency standards. “The deal doesn’t mean that the Trump administration will abandon its efforts to freeze auto standards and take away California’s permission to issue its own standards,” Carlson told the Los Angeles Magazine. “But the settlement does make the administration’s case a lot weaker.”

Increasing fuel economy standards is critical to reducing emissions in Los Angeles.
(Photo credit: Jeff Turner)

At the heart of California’s clash with the Trump administration over vehicle emissions standards is a legal waiver under the Clean Air Act, which due to California’s severe air pollution problems, allows the state to impose stricter air pollution regulations than the U.S. government. The Trump administration has announced plans to revoke California’s waiver, setting up a legal battle with the state. Cara Horowitz, co-executive director of the Emmett Institute, told the Sacramento Bee that she doubts the Trump administration could succeed in revoking the waiver in the courts. “California has the better end of that case,” she said. Horowitz added, “even if the Trump administration wins … automakers would still be free to build cars that meet California’s stricter standards.”

Julia Stein, supervising attorney for the Frank G. Wells Environmental Law Clinic at UCLA, told Forbes that California’s regulatory push isn’t the only reason automakers are moving toward more fuel-efficient cars—market forces are pushing the industry in that direction.To support her claim, Stein referenced a letter penned by automakers in June urging the Trump administration to abandon its efforts to lower emissions standards.

Increasing fuel-economy standards is critical to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving air quality in Los Angeles. In 2017, the average daily vehicle miles traveled in L.A. County was 21.9 miles per person, representing more than 222 million miles traveled daily.

Read more at Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Magazine, Sacramento Bee, and Forbes.