The head of President Donald Trump's Environmental Protection Agency is about to undo a lot of the automotive regulations implemented by President Barack Obama — regulations that are making cars much more environmentally friendly.
Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general who Trump appointed to lead the EPA last year, plans on weakening fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions standards that had been implemented over the past few years, according to The New York Times. The details have not yet been determined, and the date at which the plan will be officially announced has yet to be finalized (it was originally intended to happen on Tuesday at a car dealership in Virginia, but that was cancelled). Nevertheless, the decision to roll back automotive regulations would be a big win for America's car industry, which has called for such policies for years.
As the Times reports:
Major automakers would welcome the change. They are prepared to participate in making new rules that meet “our customers’ needs for affordable, safe, clean and fuel-efficient transportation,” said Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufactures, which represents many of the world’s largest automakers.
One potential conflict in this plan, however, is that it might not be accepted by a state which has considerable clout when it comes to precisely these types of environmental regulations — California.
Under the Clean Water Act of 1970, California has a special waiver allowing it to enforce stronger air pollution standards than the ones established by the federal government. It's allowed California's environmental regulators to become trendsetters for the rest of the nation, and Obama's own regulations were designed to match those in the Golden State. Perhaps more importantly, a dozen other states make a point of following California's lead regardless of federal policy, including highly populated states like New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.
"We’re going to defend first and foremost existing federal greenhouse gas standards. We’re defending them because they’re good for the entire nation. No one should think it’s easy to undo something that’s been not just good for the country, but good for the planet," California Attorney General Xavier Becerra told the Times.
This policy has major implications for Pruitt's plans. If California, and the states which follow its example, maintains current standards while other states do not, it could require automobile manufacturers to use very different designs for the products they sell in the two different markets.
It is unclear how the Trump administration would address this, although one option would be to try to revoke California's special waiver. Certainly Pruitt hinted that he would consider that option when he told Bloomberg TV earlier this month that "California is not the arbiter of these issues" and that the state "shouldn’t and can’t dictate to the rest of the country what these levels are going to be."
Beyond the United States, however, Pruitt's policy could have a global impact. Not only would it lead to a proliferation in the types of cars that exacerbate man-made global warming, but it would encourage other countries to likewise relax standards on carbon emissions from their vehicles. If other nations are concerned that they aren't keeping apace with the United States, this may be the approach they prefer to adapt to the changing economic environment.
Pruitt himself has emerged as one of the more compromised figures in an administration that is filled with questionable characters. He has met regularly with the energy executives whose industry he is supposed to regulate, implemented policies so hostile to the environment that many career staffers have opted to resign and removed information about climate change from the EPA's website. Pruitt was even recently revealed to have spent at least part of his time in Washington living in a townhouse that is co-owned by the wife of a powerful energy lobbyist. He has also worked to curb the influence of legitimate science in shaping environmental policy and has worked to subordinate public health and conservation concerns to the interests of business groups that feel their potential profits are diminished by environmental regulations.
In other words: It is hardly a surprise that a man best known for suing the EPA on 13 occasions as Oklahoma's attorney general is now trying to undermine yet another one of its core missions. Now that he is preparing to do so in a way that will personally impact every single American — and possibly billions of people throughout the world — it looks like the Trump administration's decision to appoint him as head of the EPA will prove to be among its more consequential ones.