Trump Threatens California's Role as a Clean-Air Pioneer

The news came, like so much else these days, over Twitter. In a series of tweets Wednesday, President Trump said his administration will revoke California’s ability to set its own vehicle emission standards. The state’s leaders have promised resistance, and the fighting will likely take the form of a lengthy court battle. The result (especially if Trump wins a second term) could determine how emissions are regulated across the country.That’s because for more than 50 years, California has led efforts in the US—and much of the world—to curb the damage that cars and other vehicles inflict on human and planetary health. Suffering from eye-stinging, lung-burning smog in the years after World War II, state officials focused on what can and can’t come out of a car’s tailpipe. Starting in 1961, new cars had to use positive crankcase ventilation, which limited emissions by controlling how air moves through the engine. Three years later, the state certified the first emissions standards. When Congress amended the Clean Air Act in 1967, a legislative compromise gave California the right to keep setting its own rules (provided they were at least as strict as their federal counterparts), given its early work in the area and its particularly nasty pollution problems.
And the Golden State hasn’t, well, let off the gas. “Every step of the way, California adopted a more aggressive required standard,” says Dan Sperling, the founding director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California Davis, who sits on the California Air Resources Board.
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California cranked up its efforts in 1975, setting newly strict emission standards for light-duty cars. Automakers who wanted to comply—and sell cars in the country’s biggest market—started equipping virtually all their vehicles with catalytic converters, which remove smog-forming hydrocarbons from exhaust gas. That in turn required the phaseout of leaded gasoline, as lead reduced the devices’ effectiveness. The EPA required gas stations to start offering unleaded fuel and made automakers use narrower tank inlets, so only the slender nozzles pumping the clean(ish) stuff could be used. By 1992, leaded gasoline, which contributes to all sorts of health problems, was no longer available in the US.

In 1977, an amendment to the Clean Air Act allowed other states to adopt California’s rules. None did so right away, but today, 13 do so; together with California, they represent one-third of US car sales. Those pioneering rules, Sperling says, also became models for countries in Europe and Asia, including Japan and China, looking to get a handle on car-caused pollution.In 1990, the state tightened its standards again, and added a new component: Its Low-Emission Vehicle program required that automakers sell some zero-emission vehicles, as in battery and fuel-cell electric cars. That program pushed General Motors to develop the EV1, which soon ended up in a junkyard but prepared the automaker to roll out the hybrid Chevy Volt in 2011 and fully electric Chevy Bolt in 2016. The program also rewarded hybrids, which now sell by the millions.
In 1999, during a stretch where the EPA let national standards stagnate, California added a rule addressing pollution caused by fuel evaporating from gas tanks in hot weather, pushing automakers to redesign their fuel tanks. And in 1998, it expanded its rules to include the hulking minivans and SUVs Americans had come to love, and strengthened the rule governing nitrogen oxide emissions, which would ultimately land Volkswagen in a heap of trouble .