EPA Changes Tack on California Standards


The United States Environmental Protection Agency is reconsidering a 2019 action that sought to end a policy allowing California to regulate motor vehicle emissions through greenhouse gas standards and a mandate for sales of zero emissions vehicles.

The announcement portends a potential reversal from a major policy of former President Donald Trump’s administration, which wanted to prevent any state from exceeding federal standards. That effort was held up in courts after 23 states and the District of Columbia sued the Trump administration over its attempt to revoke California’s exception as well as the administration’s decision to scale back on aggressive automobile fuel economy targets set by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.

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Fuel economy and emissions regulations have both affected formulation of automotive engine oils – the former encouraging a shift to lower-viscosity oils and the latter leading to restrictions in the use of certain chemicals that can compromise emissions control technologies. To the extent that they cause a shift to electric vehicles, new standards will have new impacts on the lubricants industry since EVs have significantly different lubrication and cooling requirements than cars and trucks running on fossil fuels.

President Joseph Biden’s administration has indicated it takes the opposite view of the California exception. “The 2019 decision to revoke the state’s waiver to enforce its greenhouse gas pollution standards for cars and trucks was legally dubious and an attack on the public’s health and wellbeing,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said. “Today, we are delivering on President Biden’s clear direction to tackle the climate crisis by taking a major step forward to restore state leadership and advance EPA’s greenhouse gas pollution reduction goals.”

In January 2013, the EPA granted California a waiver of Clean Air Act preemption to enforce its greenhouse gas emission standards and a zero-emission vehicle mandate contained in its Advanced Clean Cars program for light-duty vehicles. California is the only state that may receive a waiver of Clean Air Act preemption of emission standards for new motor vehicles, although other states may adopt California’s standards.

On Sept. 27, 2019, the EPA and the National Highway Transportation Safety

Administration issued an action titled “The Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient Vehicles

Rule Part One: One National Program,” called Safe 1. It contended that EPA had authority to reconsider the Advanced Clean Cars program waiver and that elements of the program waiver should be withdrawn due to NHTSA’s action under the Energy Policy & Conservation Act and Clean Air Act preemption provisions. In addition, Safe 1 included EPA’s interpretation of whether states can adopt California’s greenhouse gas emission standards under the Clean Air Act.

On Jan. 20, President Biden issued an executive order on “Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis.” He directed federal agencies to “immediately review” Safe 1, and to consider suspending, revising or rescinding that action by April 2021.

In its April 23 notice of reconsideration – which it has submitted to the Federal Register for publication – EPA said that it believes there are significant issues regarding whether Safe 1 was a valid and appropriate exercise of agency authority, “including the amount of time that had passed since EPA’s 2013 waiver decision, the novel approach and legal interpretations used in Safe 1  and whether EPA took proper account of the environmental conditions in California and the environmental consequences from the waiver withdrawal in Safe 1.” The EPA said it will also address issues raised in several petitions for reconsideration of Safe 1, including one filed by California – jointly with a number of states and cities – and one jointly filed by

nongovernmental organizations.

The notice initiates reconsideration of Safe 1 and announces a virtual public hearing, along with an opportunity to submit written comments on whether the actions taken in 2019 were appropriate.

For more information on the action, public comment period and public hearing details, visit the EPA website. The agency will hold a virtual public hearing on June 2. For more coverage of electric vehicles and their impact on lubricants, subscribe to Lubes’n’Greases’ Electric Vehicles InSite.