How California Got in the Zero-emissions Driver’s Seat

The influential California Air Resources Board has just passed new regulations that effectively mandate that by 2035, all vehicles sold in the state must be either fully electric, hydrogen-powered, or plug-in hybrid. In addition, seventeen other states have made commitments to follow California’s lead in air quality issues, thus these regulations may be adopted elsewhere.

Starting in the early 1970s, the so-called California Waiver has been an integral feature of federal emissions laws. Only California, out of all 50 US states, can impose its own standards on vehicle emissions. No other state has this authority, although any state may adopt California’s more strict emission limits in lieu of the federal government’s less harsh rules if it so chooses.

How California ended up in the zero-emissions driver's seat
How California ended up in the zero-emissions driver’s seat

Larger, more populous states like New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts prefer to follow California’s example on pollution rules. Nonetheless, they have also been accepted by the states of Nevada and New Mexico. Over a third of all U.S. vehicle sales occur in these states, which are also home to over 40% of the country’s total population. If even a fraction of these states follow California’s lead and prohibit the sale of conventional gasoline vehicles in 2035, it would constitute a sizable chunk of the United States.

Contrary to popular belief, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon are pivotal figures in the development of both the California Air Resources Board and the Environmental Protection Agency, the federal agency responsible for regulating pollution. Both are now recognized as staunch Republicans, and in today’s America, that usually means they were opposed to regulations meant to protect the environment.

President Richard Nixon also established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970 to study and control pollution of all kinds. This agency consolidated the prior efforts of several other government organizations. The Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for enforcing and managing the Clean Air Act.

“The great question of the 1970s is, Shall we give in to our circumstances, or shall we make our peace with nature and start making reparations for the damage we have done to our air, our land, and our water?” remarked that year in Nixon’s State of the Union address.

Another section of the Clean Air Act, enacted in 1977, permits other states to adopt California’s stronger emissions limits in order to improve their air quality if it does not reach federal standards. (They can’t just make up their own, more stringent regulations.) Seventeen additional states have indicated they will follow California’s emissions threshold. Collectively, they account for more than 35% of the US market for brand-new automobiles.

Marks claims that the auto sector has done fine operating under the current framework. As a result, the peace of mind that prompted the Clean Air Act and the California waiver is now a reality.
In order to determine “how to satisfy the criteria, what the standards should be,” he said, “manufacturers work very cooperatively with California.”

A request to have the California waiver eliminated was made to the courts during President Trump’s time in office. After Trump’s defeat in 2020, that effort was obviously unsuccessful. The administration of President Joseph Biden gave up on that strategy, and the California waiver was renewed in March 2022.

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