Gas War: Appeals Court Upholds EPA Approval of California Emissions Rules

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

On Tuesday, a U.S. appeals court agreed to uphold the Environmental Protection Agency's decision to re-grant a waiver that allows California the ability to set its own tailpipe emissions limits and electric vehicle mandates.

For those that don’t recall this particular saga of the Great American Gas War, the EPA reinstated a waiver under the Clear Air Act that allowed California to establish vehicle emission rules that went beyond federal standards in 2022. Originally instituted by the Obama administration in 2013, the waiver was ended by the Trump administration in 2019 on the grounds that it effectively allowed California to move the nation toward more stringent fuel economy standards and mandatory electrification.

The stated concern was that the North American market would cater to California due to its relatively large economy, something Donald Trump alleged would result in a surplus of expensive EVs nobody wanted to buy and higher prices across the board. The matter quickly turned into a major legal battle between a coalition of blue states and the federal government. California and allied Democratic territories launched numerous lawsuits in a bid to avoid having its waiver revoked. It likewise demanded automakers make a formal agreement to adhere to its emissions standards (regardless of what the federal government said) if they wanted to continue selling products within its borders.

Joe Biden ultimately restored the waiver by executive order after taking office. Now under new leadership the EPA formally reinstated the waiver under the Clear Air Act to California in 2022. The federal regulators likewise did an about face regarding the Trump-era decision to prohibit other states from adopting the California tailpipe emission standards. That same year, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) finalized a plan to end the sale of gasoline vehicles sold within the state by 2035. The plan was likewise accompanied by rising requirements for zero-emission vehicle sales starting from 2026.

While the White House is technically supposed to be prohibited from deciding what Americans can and cannot purchase, the EPA recently updated tailpipe emission limits through 2032 that fall short of Californian standards. However, they’ll effectively require manufacturers to have a vehicle breakdown that’s at least half plug-in vehicles by 2030 to adhere to its goals.

All of the above has encouraged legal challenges from 17 Republican-led states that have alleged these decisions are effectively manipulating the automotive market and run the risk of crippling the oil industry. However, according to Reuters, the three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has rejected the case.

From Reuters:

California Governor Gavin Newsom said the "court sided with common sense and public health against the fossil fuel industry and Republican-led states. This ruling reaffirms California’s longstanding right to address pollution from cars and trucks."
Republicans argued the rules gave California an unconstitutional regulatory power denied to other states.
The court rejected that argument and said reversing the EPA decision would address state claims if automakers responded by selling fewer EVs or by lowering prices of gas-powered models and said there was no evidence to support that conclusion.

While this isn’t the first time California has been granted a regulatory waiver by the EPA, it’s hard to argue that what the state is doing isn’t influencing the industry and shaping the American automotive landscape. Sadly, whether or not you think that’s a good thing probably has more to do with who you vote for than what you actually think. The issue has become almost a parody of partisan government.

As for the industry itself, despite many companies having agreed to follow California’s rules in the past, many are now questioning whether or not these goals are feasible. The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, an industry lobbying group representing just about every major manufacturer, has been so wishy-washy on the topic that it’s almost not worth listening to. But its current take is that the automotive sector might have trouble reaching the goals laid out by California and even the EPA. Meanwhile, automakers spent the last decade telling everyone that electric vehicles would reach parity with combustion-engine vehicles by 2025 and have relentlessly been messaging that they’re pivoting toward all-electric vehicles as quickly as possible.

[Image: Boeang Sadewa/]

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Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • Wjtinfwb Job cuts and EV's... is that a winning strategy? You're locked in to substantial labor expense after the UAW agreement signed a few months ago. And EV's ain't exactly flying off the shelves en masse. Get the new Charger out already, it's been teased more than the Bronco and Supra were combined. Get a real Hybrid option out for the RAM trucks and big Jeeps that consumers will buy. Consider bringing back a Gen 3 Hemi with an aluminum block, direct injection and perhaps a Hybrid option to counter the Toyota debacle and get a jump on GM. Dump the Hornet and build Dodge a version of the Jeep Compass they can actually sell. A Dodge with Alfa bones isn't compelling to either brands fans. Fix the Durango's oil cooler problems to avoid alienating police departments nationwide. Do you want every cop in the US driving an Explorer? Freshen up the Pacifica and get Chrysler a cool sedan or wagon that can create a buzz like the 300 did more than a decade ago. And fix your dealers, they are by a large jackasses. Plenty of opportunity for improvement.
  • 3-On-The-Tree True that’s the worst beat down in history.
  • Jalop1991 Tesla has made getting repairs a real headache for some owners, as the automaker hasn’t allowed them to get work done at third-party shops. That policy has led owners to seek  class-action status against the company,So, move next to the airport then complain about the noise.Got it.
  • Jalop1991 One of the most interesting parts of this situation is that Stellantis, and by extension, the Chrysler Group, is increasingly considered a foreign companyNational Lampoon, May 1981.
  • ChristianWimmer This W126 example looks very nicely maintained and very clean inside and out. Definitely owned with love and respect. I can see Bill from Curious Cars selling this thing! My father drove a second hand bare bones facelifted 1985 Mercedes 300SE W126 back in the day until the early 2000s which eventually got passed down to me. The previous owner had only paid extra for a sunroof and automatic transmission. It had black cloth seats, no A/C, manual windows, no cruise control and those ugly plastic hubcaps which were so common on 1980s Mercedes’. I drove the 300SE for about seven years and enjoyed the comfort and pretty low running costs: reliable and also relatively fuel efficient. If you drove it normally you could get it to sip 9 L / 100 km. Motor oil consumption was pretty high as it got older needing a top up with 1 L of oil every 1,500-2,000 km, but this was apparently normal on the 3.0 inline-6. A comfortable long-distance cruiser and it even “handled” pretty nicely when you attempted to drive it in a 50% sporty manner on some backroads. After the free-for-all parking lot it usually parked on got demolished and parking such a huge barge became a problem, I ended up selling it to a local classic car club which still own it to this day and display it at classic car shows. Great memories of that car. 420SE/SEL and the 560SE/SEL are nice but the thirsty motors are something of a turn off.