Federal unSAFE Rollbacks Would Have Dire Consequences for Air Quality
11:11 AM PDT on June 6, 2019
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A few weeks ago, the California Transportation Commission (CTC) and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) held a joint workshop to discuss potential ramifications of the Trump administration's proposed rollback of federal clean car standards. Speakers at the workshop--government agencies, advocacy organizations, planners and lawyers--were unanimously opposed to the proposal.
Currently, rules approved during the Obama administration, after years of negotiations between automakers, California and other states, and the federal government, require vehicles sold in the U.S. to meet increasingly stringent fuel efficiency standards by 2030. The federal proposal, cynically termed the SAFE rule, for the "Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient Vehicle Rule," would freeze the standards at the 2020 requirements.
It's hard to know where to begin articulating how bad this policy is. One place to start: many of the technologies that can help vehicles meet the stricter rules already exist and are in use, although they may not be widely deployed yet. In other words, the federal government's justification that the requirements would be too difficult to meet are patently false.
But there is so much more to oppose. And resist.
Speakers at the workshop pointed out the following problems with the proposed rollback:
- It would put just about every State Implementation Plan (SIP)--the regional air quality plans to decrease harmful air pollution--out of conformity with the Federal Clean Air Act. That's not just in California, but throughout the nation.
- It would mean every Regional Transportation Plan and its Sustainable Communities Strategy (RTP/SCS), and every project in it, would no longer be in compliance with state and federal law, and would have to be revisited, replanned, rewritten.
- It would potentially allow the federal government to take over regional and state clean air planning.
- It would allow the federal government to put a hold on transportation funding--an official hold, not just the current method of forgetting they promised to fund something big like, say, a rail expansion.
- It would put a hold on transportation projects throughout the state, and not just those that rely on federal money. State money would also have to be held back if the RTPs do not "conform"--that is, if they can't show that they will help a region reach federal Clean Air standards. This includes programs funded under S.B. 1, California's own gas tax hike, which would not be able to distribute funding until the plans are fixed. The money could be collected, but it couldn't be released. Workshop participants put this number very high--many billions of dollars for thousands of projects.
- It creates huge uncertainties. Not only is it not known when the rule will be released, or exactly what it will say, but it is likely to be tied up in court--and for how long? If the plans have to be redone, that would take many years. Plus they would need to incorporate as-yet-unknown new ideas and start all over again on the complex modeling they use to show they can reach air quality standards across many sectors.
The Natural Resources Defense Council has a post, here, that spells out what could happen, using the South Coast Air Quality District as an example:
"The local South Coast air basin is not meeting the (old) federal ... standard for ozone (smog) and must meet that standard by 2023. Due largely to tailpipe emissions from cars and trucks, the South Coast has little chance of meeting the standards by that date, but if the Trump rollback plan goes into effect, its chances will drop to near zero," writes David Pettit on the NRDC blog.
This is because the federal plan aims to:
- Weaken greenhouse gas emissions standards, which will lead to more exhaust produced from cars, which creates more NOx, contributing to smog, making air quality standards that much harder to reach.
- Take away California's right to require automakers to increase the number of zero-emission cars they sell in the state, which will lead to fewer electric vehicles on the road and more smog, etc. etc. ad nauseum
- Cause the consumption of more gasoline than projected at the more stringent efficiency standards, leading both to more exhaust emissions (etc. etc. ad nauseum) as well as more emissions from the production and refinement of oil, a big industry in California.
The potential loss of funding has gotten people's attention, but what is really at stake is air quality. Not just in California, either, but across the nation. Huge numbers of Californians still live in communities with unhealthy air, despite all the gains made via the state and federal Clean Air Acts in the last decades.
But money is still doing most of the talking.
The process that produces California's Regional Transportation Plans (RTPs) is politically fraught and rarely produces the best or the smartest outcomes. Many of the plans still include and even prioritize highways that support sprawl development in the name of "congestion reduction," and the Sustainable Communities Strategies tend to range from weak to unrealistic, and lack financial backing. But they do at least reflect thinking about where California is likely to grow and by how much, and what future transportation needs are likely to be. And they provide a framework, however badly formulated, for prioritizing transportation projects and justifying the allocation of taxpayer money to them.
And the RTPs take forever to produce.
The problem is, and always has been, that the RTPs assume that cars are and will remain the main mode of transport for most Californians. Because of that, their future scenarios all rely on cleaner vehicles to get us out of the pickle we're in in terms of both bad air and climate crisis.
While the speakers at the joint CTC/CARB all opposed the rollback, none offered solid solutions. As Chris Mitt from Caltrans put it, "There is no Plan B." State agencies, he said, "are [already] working on this all the time, to make sure California is meeting the law. We're only hearing about it now because a monkey wrench is being thrown into the works."
As far as what to do, Jennifer Gress of CARB was charged with addressing "next steps," and she kept it brief. Step one, she said, is to fight the rule. "We are prepared to litigate it," she said, which would add yet one more legal battle to California's docket against the federal government.
Step two would be to revisit or rewrite or rework the SIPs, and by extension the RTPs. "We will have to think about other measures that are necessary to make up reductions [in other sectors]," she said. "We will have to update rules and update modeling. It's a long process. We will need to make deep reductions."
This solution--to revisit the plans--was one no one seemed to want to talk about. As regulation has successfully reduced emissions from some polluting industries, transportation has become the biggest source of air pollution, which means cleaning up vehicles is the next big battlefield for emission reductions. And the "easy" answer everyone has sort of been able to agree on was to force automakers to make cars cleaner.
"Drive less" doesn't have the right ring to it, apparently.
Mary Nichols, the head of CARB, did point in that direction as a solution. "The alternatives [to cleaner cars] are extreme," she said.
"If we don't have the ability to continue to move forward on cleaner cars," she said, "we will be faced with dramatic alternatives in terms of tighter, stricter controls on everything else, including movement of vehicles and potentially looking at fees and taxes and bans on certain types of vehicles and products."
But then she felt the need to add: "These are not things that most of us think are the right way to go."
A very cynical person might point out that the federal administration is not likely to care much about whether standards in the Clean Air Act are met, perhaps rendering moot the question of whether California can come up with plans to meet them. Even if true, however, this Catch-22 could give the feds another way to mess with California's progress to date by allowing them to take over local air quality planning. And it would be foolish to imagine that federal oversight would lead to the cleaner air Californians desperately need.
One of the more frightening comments made at the workshop came from Simon Mui of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who told participants that the unSAFE rule is only "one part of a larger federal rollback on all programs within the Clean Air Act. The federal administration is trying to weaken over twenty separate rules, including the national Clean Power Plan." The rollback threat is "uncovering the veil of what is happening," he said.
Harvard keeps a list, here, of all the rules the Trump administration is gunning for. "We are litigating every single one of them," said the NRDC's Pettit.
The federal government is making it very clear that it is not interested in taking feedback from experts or citizens on these rules, but instead is determined to give industry whatever it wants. In the long run, these rollbacks will be just as bad for the oil companies as for everyone else, but the oil industry's long-term plans seem based on leaving consequences for the next generations. States' main response, to tie everything up in court, highlights the limits of our options in the face of a federal government bent on destroying its own institutions.
Streetsblog California editor Melanie Curry has been thinking about transportation, and how to improve conditions for bicyclists, since her early days commuting by bike to UCLA long ago. She was Managing Editor at the East Bay Express, and edited Access Magazine for the University of California Transportation Center. She also earned her Masters in City Planning from UC Berkeley.
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