A group of 23 states, escalating a fight over regulation, state rights and climate change, on Friday sued to undo the Trump administration's determination that federal law bars California from setting stiff tailpipe emissions standards and zero-emission vehicle mandates.
The states, led by California and joined by the District of Columbia, Los Angeles and New York City, are seeking a court order blocking a determination unveiled Thursday by the Transportation Department and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, according to papers filed in the U.S. District Court in Washington.
"Mr. President, we’ll see you in court,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement.
The states suing include New York, Michigan, Colorado, Illinois, New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts.
The Transportation Department did not immediately comment on the suit. It said on Thursday that federal law preempts state and local regulation of vehicle fuel economy, including California's greenhouse gas vehicle emissions rules that are followed by about a dozen other states.
The legal challenge does not address a parallel decision by the EPA to revoke a 2013 waiver California received under the Clean Air Act to set emissions standards. That does not take effect until late November.
The lawsuit marks the latest salvo in a high-stakes battle between the Trump administration and state officials over the future of U.S. light-vehicle emissions and fuel economy.
Becerra said the Transportation Department's determination was unlawful, and that the administration misread federal law and ignored the intent of Congress.
"The administration insists on attacking the authority of California and other states to tackle air pollution and protect public health," Becerra said.
In its new policy, the administration asserts that the Department of Transportation’s authority to set fuel-economy standards for cars and light trucks preempts California’s ability to dictate tailpipe-emissions standards for greenhouse gases, even as the EPA has a nearly unbroken 50-year history of granting permission for the state to do just that.
While the state was first granted authority to better combat endemic urban smog problems in 1967, California remains home to seven of the 10 American cities with the worst air quality.
“California has the worst air quality in the United States,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said this week, noting that tens of millions of people there reside in areas that don’t meet ambient air standards. “We hope California will focus on these issues.”
Still, the EPA rescinded a 2013 waiver that permitted the state to pursue its own greenhouse-gas-emissions standard and a zero-emission vehicle mandate, arguing the federal Clean Air Act prohibited both programs. The waiver withdrawal will take effect starting in the 2021 automotive model year.
The states suing contend the administration action is unjustifiably arbitrary and capricious, and willfully misreads the federal Energy Policy and Conservation Act as preempting state emissions standards. They also say it defies the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to assess the impact of the administration’s action upon the environment and public health.
The highway safety agency “conducted no analysis at all of the environmental impacts of a regulation that purports to preempt air pollution laws in effect in states that represent more than a third of the nation’s automobile market,” according to the lawsuit.
On Sept. 19, California’s top air-pollution regulatory board approved the state’s plans to set its own standards with carmakers Ford Motor Co., Volkswagen Group, Honda Motor Co. and BMW Group.
Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, who was named as a defendant in the suit, said the administration’s action would ensure that there would be just one set of national fuel economy standards, “as Congress mandated and intended.”
“No state has the authority to opt out of the nation’s rules and no state has a right to impose its policies on everybody else in our whole country,” she said Thursday.
More than a dozen states had previously elected to adopt California’s emissions regulations as their own: Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.
All the state attorneys general signing on to the suit are Democrats but they represent several states that Trump won in the 2016 electrion.
“This is the fight of a lifetime for us,” said Mary Nichols, the longtime head of California’s Air Resources Board. “I believe we will win.”
Reuters and Bloomberg contributed to this report.