Trump Action Blocking California Emissions Authority Will Have No Impact On Trucking — For Now

The Trump administration's decision to revoke a waiver allowing California to set its own standards for automobile emissions will not impact regulations governing heavy-duty trucks, but questions remain about how the decision will impact the development of future environmental policies governing the commercial vehicle industry.

"The waiver the U.S. EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] is threatening applies only to passenger vehicles," said David Clegern, a public information officer with the California Air Resources Board (CARB), in an email to FreightWaves. "It has nothing to do with heavy-duty regulations."

Joe Rajkovacz, head of government and regulatory affairs for the Western States Trucking Association, doubled down on that statement. 

"I've got truckers who say: ‘Oh, the Truck and Bus Rule is going away; we don't have to comply.' That's not the case," said Rajkovacz.

Nevertheless, Rajkovacz believes rescinding the waiver could have an impact on CARB plans to implement stricter low NOx emissions and zero-emissions standards for commercial vehicles. 

"It's moving forward where there could be trucking linkages," he acknowledged.

California carves its own path

A leader in state efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, California has adopted pollution standards for cars and trucks that are much stronger than national mandates.

But in a widely anticipated move, the Trump administration announced on Sept. 18 that it was axing a key provision giving California the authority to enforce pollution requirements in passenger vehicles.

That news follows a Department of Justice decision earlier this month to launch an antitrust investigation into a July deal between the Golden State and four automakers. 

In that agreement, Ford, Volkswagen, Honda and BMW agreed to abide by California's stricter fuel-economy standards even if Trump follows through on his plan to roll back federal fuel-economy standards put in place by the Obama administration.

Court battle 

Experts were united in saying Trump will have a tough time trying to get Congress and the courts to uphold his decision abolishing the waiver.

"There is no Clean Air Act process or procedure to ‘withdraw' a waiver, and no president has ever successfully completed such a withdrawal," Thaddeus Lightfoot, a partner and environmental lawyer with Dorsey & Whitney, told FreightWaves.

Others have tried — and failed. In 2008, the George W. Bush administration denied California's waiver, and California challenged that decision, but the case was never decided, Lightfoot said. 

When Barack Obama became president, the litigation was suspended, and in 2009, the EPA granted California's waiver to set its own greenhouse-gas emission standards for the model years 2009 to 2016.

Green auto market

Almost ten years later, the auto industry is not going to alter its powertrain strategies, even in the unlikely event that Congress and the courts do let Trump's decision stand, said Steven Skerlos, a professor of Mechanical Engineering and Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Michigan.

Thirteen other states follow California's strict emissions standards, representing a third of the national auto markets. Plus, said Skerlos, automakers are keenly aware of environmental factors driving the marketplace.

"Knowing that environmental pressures are growing, that climate change is real and a megatrend, would you go ahead and adopt a lower standard for a period that could very well be temporary?" asked Skerlos.

"There's a question, a skepticism, that things will change overnight."

Freight impacts

California's clean truck regulations, which are stricter than federal limits, have also pushed the market toward cleaner fuel models, and that trajectory is unlikely to reverse course.

Many of the big manufacturers are involved in pilot projects in California, where subsidies have accelerated the development of electric and hydrogen-electric big rigs.

Legitimate questions remain about how the Trump decision might impact emissions limits beyond single occupancy vehicles, Lightfoot said. But for now, the status quo isn't budging.

"I haven't wanted to post the article [about Trump's decision] on social media," said Rajkovacz. Truckers think they are getting a break, "but they are not."

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