What happens if California loses its grip on American tailpipes? Martin Meissner/AP

At stake: The state’s half-century-long right to regulate auto emissions.

California’s ability to create its own fuel efficiency standards for cars sold in the state is under threat, Environmental Protection Agency director Andrew Wheeler confirmed Friday, as are Obama-era fuel standards for cars and light trucks. A proposal, expected to be released as soon as this week from the EPA, would revoke permission granted to California in 2012 by the Obama administration that allows the state to establish its own automotive emission regulations.

A long courtroom battle would surely follow any attempt to end that relationship. But how did California end up with the ability to set its own emissions rules anyway—and what would happen if that suddenly goes way?

The state was first granted this unique ability in 1970, when the Clean Air Act established the first federal air pollution limits. But California already had its own, more stringent emissions standards for vehicles, thanks to the California Air Resources Board (CARB), an earlier clear-air watchdog formed in 1967 in response to the dangerous smog that afflicted greater Los Angeles and other parts of the state. (Here’s a helpful short film about that saga.)

Had the new federal standards preempted California’s rules, smog control would have become less strict, so the state was exempted from the rule and allowed to set its own pollution benchmarks for cars sold in the state. Currently more than a dozen other states also follow California’s standards; collectively, this market comprises 30 percent of all cars sold in the United States.

This represents a challenge for a Trump White House that is determined to undo environmental regulations established by the previous administration. In April, then-EPA chief Scott Pruitt said that the administration planned to walk back Obama-era guidelines requiring an average fuel efficiency of 54.5 miles per gallon for light trucks and cars by the end of 2025. Instead, the EPA will enforce guidelines through 2021 only. “Cooperative federalism doesn’t mean that one state can dictate standards for the rest of the country,” Pruitt said in a statement at the time.

After that announcement, 17 states filed a lawsuit against the EPA, arguing that the rule change was illegal.

Simply replacing the 2025 goals with looser new ones couldn’t be enforced nationwide, since California and the states that follow it would maintain standards at the level agreed upon with the Obama administration, forcing automakers to either sell cars with different fuel efficiencies in different parts of the country, or simply acquiesce to California’s stricter rules.

“The auto industry does not want to build two sets of vehicles for the U.S.,” said Bruce Belzowski, the managing director of Automotive Futures Group, a think tank in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The prospect of standardizing vehicles for the entire American market was a big reason why carmakers agreed to stricter federal standards in 2012 under the Obama administration, according to Belzowski. And the car industry is a global one: American vehicles sold overseas need to be compliant with standards in European and Asia—particularly in China, a huge, emerging market. Severe air-pollution concerns in Chinese cities like Shanghai and Beijing have led the Chinese government to emphasize electric vehicles and tighter emissions standards recently. The European Union enforces fuel economy standards stricter than those in the United States.

“Companies that are selling in all those markets want economies of scale, not to do separate things in each country,” Belzowski said.

Then there’s the bigger question of whether the EPA proposal to revoke California’s waiver would succeed.

“No one has ever tried to revoke a waiver before,” said Michael Wara, director of the climate and energy policy program at Stanford University. “The question is: Can you do that? What level of scrutiny will the court apply?”

For example, Wara says the EPA could interpret the Clean Air Act’s waiver section in a more limited fashion. Since California’s biggest air pollution problems involve ozone and nitrous oxide, Wara says, the administration could require California to only independently regulate those two gases, hobbling its abilities to oversee overall auto emissions.

Still, there are creative ways the state could wriggle around such a limitation. Case in point: leaf blowers. California is successfully enacting rules governing the use of these notoriously dirty power tools “not because of carbon dioxide, but because of particulates and other air pollutants,” Wara said. “We could do that for cars.”

Over the last decades, California has been steadily improving air quality; the months and years ahead could change that. A GOP-funded effort to repeal an increase to the gas tax in the state, Proposition 7, recently garnered enough signatures to make it on the November ballot. And California is currently suing the EPA for not enforcing Obama-era regulations limiting methane releases from oil and gas facilities.

Many experts are confident that California would prevail in a legal fight over the EPA’s waiver. But that waiver only lasts until 2025 and will soon need replacement, setting up the prospect of more high-stakes battles between California and the Trump administration.

“Fundamentally,” Wara said, “California is in a really difficult situation.”

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