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Electric Vehicles

California Is Quietly Trump-Proofing Its EV Rules

Meanwhile, automakers and policymakers alike are looking to it for inspiration.

A California handshake.
california stellantis epa
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Even as the Environmental Protection Agency was preparing to release federal tailpipe emissions rules that will steer more U.S. drivers into electric vehicles, California was working in the background to harden its own, more stringent emissions standards.

On Tuesday, the state announced an agreement with Stellantis, the automaking conglomerate that contains the Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, and Ram brands to comply with more restrictive tailpipe emissions rules through 2026. California also said Stellantis would go along with its electrification mandates through 2030 — regardless of whether either is struck down by federal regulators or the courts.

The agreement is part of California’s effort to preserve its ability to set emissions standards and mandate electrification even with a hostile White House and judicial branch. By trying to get enough of the industry to agree to its rules voluntarily and not join any effort that may arise to throw them out, it hopes either to preserve its rule-making ability or, in the worst case scenario, leverage the industry’s desire for predictability to keep the rules themselves intact.

David Clegern, public information officer at the California Air Resources Board, told me there was no connection between Tuesday’s agreement and today’s EPA announcement. The deal “gives Stellantis flexibility in how they meet California's existing greenhouse gas emissions vehicle requirements," he said. In exchange, the state gets an even deeper emissions cut than it would otherwise — some 10 million extra tons of foregone greenhouse gas emissions.

Stellantis also agreed “not to oppose California’s authority under the Clean Air Act for its greenhouse gas emissions and zero-emissions vehicle standards,” the California Air Resources Board said in its announcement of the agreement.

California has long had the ability to set its own emissions standards thanks to the structure of the Clean Air Act and a waiver from the EPA. California got some automakers to agree to a version of Obama-era tailpipe emissions rules in the summer of 2019 that the Trump administration had planned on scrapping, after which Trump officials revoked California’s ability to set emissions rules. California finalized its agreement with the automakers the following year, then regained its authority to set emissions rules in 2022.

The principle behind the Stellantis deal is similar to those earlier agreements, Clegern said. Stellantis had been on the outside looking in on California’s deals with automakers, and late last year initiated an administrative process to try to get them thrown out. (It was unsuccessful.) Now, the company has agreed not only to implement emissions and electrification rules, but also to invest in electrification in the state by spending $4 million on charging infrastructure in California and $6 million in states that also adopt California’s emissions rules.

Meanwhile, the EPA is working on a new waiver process for California’s electrification standards, which would need to be completed before the end of this year to both avoid interference from a potential incoming Republican administration and to make sure it applies on the schedule the state has set out, Kathy Harris, clean vehicles director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told me. The rules, known as the Advanced Clean Car Standard II regulations, start with the 2026 model year and apply through 2035 and mandate that all new car sales in the state be electric by the middle of the 2030s.

About a dozen other states so far have adopted the ACC II standards, including Massachusetts, New York, and Oregon.

Many commenters on the EPA car emission proposal set out the California rules as a model for what the agency should do. “Vehicle manufacturers also commented that they had extensive collaboration with the California Air Resources Board (CARB) during the development of CARB’s recently finalized Advanced Clean Car II (ACC II) standards,” according to the final rule, “and industry broadly recommended that EPA adopt the ACC II program in lieu of our proposed standards.”

In the end, the EPA rules follow a different model than the California standards, Harris said. Crucially, the EPA isn’t mandating electrification. In remarks at a White House even on Wednesday, EPA administrator Michael Regan emphasized that they were instead technology neutral and performance based, meaning that they leave it up to the automakers to figure out how to comply.

David Reichmuth, the senior engineer in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ clean transportation program, told me that, compared to California's, the EPA rules “are distinct in what they regulate and how they regulate vehicles,” he told me. Nevertheless, “they are pulling in the same direction in trying to reduce emissions from transportation and air pollution from vehicles.”

California’s ability to set its own emissions rules is not just likely to be questioned by a Republican administration should Donald Trump win in 2025, it also could be at risk in the courts. Ohio and other states with Republican attorneys general sued the EPA in 2022 over the existence of the California waiver in a case that was heard by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals last fall. The ruling is still pending.

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Matthew Zeitlin

Matthew is a correspondent at Heatmap. Previously he was an economics reporter at Grid, where he covered macroeconomics and energy, and a business reporter at BuzzFeed News, where he covered finance. He has written for The New York Times, the Guardian, Barron's, and New York Magazine. Read More

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