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Trump Administration To Revoke California's Power Over Car Emissions


All right. Today, the Trump administration is expected to revoke California's ability to make its own auto emissions rules. For almost 50 years, California has been enforcing more stringent environmental rules than other states. That era seems to be coming to an end according to reporting from several media outlets. And I want to turn now to Jody Freeman. She's a law professor who directs the Environmental & Energy Law Program at Harvard. She led the push for stricter auto emissions standards in the Obama White House. Professor, welcome.

JODY FREEMAN: Thank you.

GREENE: So what impact should we be - what potential impact should we be paying attention to here if this change is made?

FREEMAN: Well, just to put this in context, you know, this has been 50 years of California getting waivers from the federal government to set its own standards if they want to and have other states opt into them. And they've gotten these waivers from both parties, Republican and Democratic administrations. And never has one been revoked once it's been granted. So this is unprecedented.

I think the Trump administration is showing just how aggressive their kind of anti-climate agenda is because it's not enough to freeze fuel efficiency standards at the federal level, which they have announced they're about to finalize. But they're also now intending to block the states - especially California - that want to do more.

And on top of that, they've actually threatened auto companies that if they voluntarily want to agree to meet California's higher standards, those companies will be investigated by the Department of Justice for conspiring to restrain trade. So it really shows you the lengths that the administration is going to to kind of setback climate and clean air policy in the country.

GREENE: I mean, it sounds like the argument that the administration is making - and we should say, this hasn't happened yet. There's some reporting that the administration might postpone this announcement. But the head of the EPA, Andrew Wheeler, said in a speech yesterday, quote, "federalism does not mean that one state can dictate standards for the nation."

I mean, I just wonder is there - is there, you know, an argument of fundamentals here that, you know, one state should not have different environmental standards than other states, it really should be a decision made by the entire country?

FREEMAN: Well, actually, I think Mr. Wheeler has it backwards. The foundation of environmental law, since the birth of the field in this country, has been to have the federal government set a baseline, a floor of standards. And then let the states innovate and go above them if they wish. So that's been the long tradition. And it's been a terrific engine of innovation in the country of producing clean air, clean water, et cetera, with states as the drivers.

In this instance, it's actually not true that California sets the standards for the country. Here in this case, they have special authority, where they can set different standards if they want. And other states can follow them if they want. But nobody has to do anything they don't want. I think this is a sort of pugnacious political punch in the nose to California. And it's very bad for progress on climate change. It's bad for consumers because consumers are going to pay more for gas for less efficient cars. It's bad technology policy for the country because the auto industry benefits from being pushed to make cleaner cars.

And not one auto CEO executive has come out publicly to support the president's very drastic rollback here. So that speaks volumes in itself. They've - several of them said they support keeping California in the structure of setting standards. And they support making progress on fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas emission reduction.

GREENE: Well, can I just ask you one step-back question here? I mean, this all comes ahead of big climate change protests that are planned across the country for this Friday. And the environment seems to be drawing more attention than it has in the past. Having been on the politics side of this, is this activism making a difference? Is it having the impact on the policy of the Trump administration?

FREEMAN: Well, I'm not sure it's going to change the policies of this administration, which seems really quite bent on unraveling every climate policy the Obama folks put in place. I do think, though, it's creating a lot of interest in what the Democratic field is going to look like for the next presidential election. And I think it's kind of raising consciousness around the country about the importance of these issues. So I think it's going to have a political impact in the next cycle.

GREENE: Jody Freeman served as counselor for energy and climate change in the Obama White House. She now directs the Environmental & Energy Law Program at Harvard. Thank you so much.

FREEMAN: Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.