With Scott Pruitt, a close ally of the oil and gas industry, now confirmed as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, environmentalists are bracing for a broad assault on former President Obama’s green legacy, particularly his efforts to reduce the carbon emissions linked to global climate change.
In most of those fights, the only viable recourse for environmentalists is to contest Pruitt in court. (They can’t expect much help from the Republican Congress.) But on the critical issue of requiring auto manufacturers to improve fuel efficiency, green forces have another line of defense: unique authority that Congress granted to California under the Clean Air Act decades ago. Across the many confrontations looming between President Trump and Democratic-leaning local governments on issues from immigration to health care, the impending struggle between the EPA and California over fuel economy may be the one where Democrats most clearly hold a trump card.
After years of stalemate that blocked any increases, Obama and the auto industry reached agreement in 2009 to raise mileage requirements for cars and light trucks from around 25 miles per gallon to 35.5 mpg by 2016. (In breaking the logjam it didn’t hurt that Obama was also negotiating the federal financial lifeline that saved the auto industry amid the Great Recession.) In 2012, Obama and the auto industry reached a second agreement to raise fuel economy standards to about 54 miles per gallon by 2025. These improvements were a cornerstone of Obama’s climate agenda: his EPA projected that in 2025 improved fuel economy would yield even more carbon reductions than its Clean Power Plan targeting power generation.