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CA Air Resources Board (CARB)

Proposed Federal Fuel Economy Rules Will Mess Up Everything

Photo by David Iliff, via Wikipedia. Air quality in California is much better than it used to be, but is still very unhealthy.

Note: GJEL Accident Attorneys regularly sponsors coverage on Streetsblog San Francisco and Streetsblog California. Unless noted in the story, GJEL Accident Attorneys is not consulted for the content or editorial direction of the sponsored content.

At the behest of the oil industry, the Trump administration has been trying to weaken current standards for vehicle emissions and fuel economy. The cynical title of the new federal rule, which hasn't yet been officially announced, is SAFE. That stands for "Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient" vehicle rules. It proposes to stall tailpipe emissions reductions at levels currently called for by 2020, instead of steadily increasing fuel efficiency and reducing emissions over time.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency also intends to remove California's authority to set its own clean air standards. That authority stems from historical precedence, since California created stricter clean air rules before Congress passed and the government enforced the Clean Air Act.

The current administration falsely claims that the less stringent rule will save money--by keeping vehicles cheaper to manufacture--and lives. That is, it would result in a reduction in highway fatalities presumably because vehicles will be bigger and heavier and their occupants better protected in crashes--which neglects the safety of people outside of vehicles. It also disregards the health costs of bad air quality and ignores the well-documented finding that making driving cheaper increases driving, congestion, and emissions.

California has been fighting the new rule on several fronts since it was first proposed. California was joined by sixteen other states in a lawsuit contending there was no need for a new rule at all. The Air Resources Board and the state attorney general have met with federal officials, submitted pages of comments, and attended public meetings to raise questions about its unintended consequences. But in February of this year, the federal EPA abruptly ended talks with California, and stated its intention to proceed with the new rulemaking regardless of objections.

Other state agencies haven't paid as much attention to the issue--until now. At the recent joint CARB/California Transportation Commission meeting, the CTC seemed to suddenly be aware that the ripple effect of the proposed rule change could affect their ability to fund transportation projects.

That's because federal rules about attaining regional clean air standards still hold. Both federal and state rules require transportation plans to estimate the effects of proposed projects on ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, lead, and nitrogen dioxide. Regional Transportation Plans are not allowed to make air pollution worse than it already is.

But.

California's regions rely on federal rules about tailpipe emissions and fuel economy to lower regional emissions. That is, without tailpipe emissions steadily decreasing over time, the planned transportation projects will make air pollution worse. And that would mean the Regional Transportation Plans are out of compliance and need to be reworked.

This is made worse by the fact that there are so many areas in California that are "non-attainment" areas--that is, that already do not meet federal clean air standards. Imperial County, the Sacramento metro area, San Diego County, the San Francisco Bay Area, the San Joaquin Valley, the South Coast Air District, and even Santa Barbara are just some of the nineteen areas in the state that are out of compliance.

All those areas have until August of this year to show how they are going to "achieve attainment," but they are going to have to do so in what CARB chair Mary Nichols called "a period of uncertainty."

At the recent joint meeting, Nichols said that "when the Trump administration announced they had broken off talks, we had to start preparing for what's next. California is ready to make adjustments in our program, but we have not been able to find a partner to engage in a substantive discussion."

The official comment period has closed; the final rule could move forward later this spring or summer.

"The [federal] EPA is in the process of looking at California's comments" on the new rules, according to Sylvia Vanderspek, Chief of the Air Quality Branch at CARB. "As part of the final rule-making, they have to respond to every comment. But we don't have a good handle on the timing for finalizing approval, and we don't have a good handle on what the actual final rule will say."

The new rules will have to go through a process of checking to make sure they are both financially sound and "bullet proof" in court--California has made it abundantly clear that we will fight to keep improving clean air standards.

The federal government has lost twice in previous court proceedings when they tried to revoke California's authority to set its own standards; nevertheless this current move is "unprecedented," according to Vanderspek.

"We have never had the EPA attack our waiver authority, or pull a waiver after it's already been approved," she said. "The only time we've come close to a revocation of a waiver was under George Bush, when they just neglected to approve it. But when Obama came into office, he approved it and made the federal standards equivalent to California's."

What seems even worse is that current standards were developed in conjunction with multiple federal agencies, the result of "voluminous coordination and cooperation between staff--sometimes dozens of calls a day," said Vanderspek. But since March, "we have had no communication at all with anyone at any level in EPA," she said. "That's after forty years of working closely with the EPA."

These uncertainties affect much more than just California. In addition to other states opting to follow California's clean car standards, transportation plans in every state must conform to federal clean air rules.

The CTC is worried about what all this will mean for transportation planning and funding in California. After its next regular meeting in San Diego on May 16, it will host a special three-hour session to discuss the implications of the proposed rule.

But the issue of transportation planning and conformity is only one question among many raised. The cumulative impacts of rolling back clean car standards could add tons of emissions to California communities that are already suffering from some of the worst air in the nation.

This isn't just about climate change, it's about immediate public health impacts on communities throughout the state. CARB has made it clear that one way or the other it plans to meet its statutory obligations under state climate and clean air rules, and that could mean looking to other sectors to lower emissions. But other sectors have already reduced their emissions, and transportation produces almost half of the state's pollution. It will be difficult to achieve reductions from other sectors at the same scale that the current fuel economy rules could achieve--if they were allowed to remain in place.

It doesn't feel like a silver lining, but if current transportation plans lead to the state's regions being even further out of compliance with air quality rules, then officials could be forced to plan for a transportation system that doesn't rely on private vehicles.

But it's also possible--maybe probable--that the federal administration doesn't care about federal clean air rules or attainment or conformity.

In either case, it's important that people make clear to regional and state planners that the impact of transportation on air quality and public health has to be taken seriously. The CTC meeting on May 16 is a good place to start; public comments will be heard there.

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