EPA Administrator Weighs In On California Emissions Decision
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
California today filed its 60th lawsuit against the Trump administration. This is the latest over the administration's decision to revoke California's authority to set its own clean car standards. More than a dozen states now follow those standards. Those states and more have joined the suit. The fight could go all the way to the Supreme Court. Earlier this week, I spoke with California's Attorney General Xavier Becerra. He says the Trump administration is trying to put the brakes on progress. Today, a conversation with EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler.
ANDREW WHEELER: It's important to remember - and I don't think all the states were paying attention to this aspect - we're not stopping California's ability to set standards for health protection, health emissions, from automobiles. This is only about CO2, energy efficiency. California still has the right, the ability, to set a standard to protect their citizens for clean air rationale for emissions from cars that impact public health. What we're talking about here is energy efficiency, and that is something that we don't believe the state of California or any state should be setting for the entire country.
CORNISH: You know, one of the things that's also come up is the fact that four major automakers agreed to meet California standards. I mean, what about their stance is so troubling to the president and to you?
WHEELER: Automobile manufacturers can always go above. What we do is, we set the floor. They can always go above, and there's no reason why they can't sell more energy-efficient vehicles than what the federal standard is. The problem is, if one state decides to set a standard, it would then end up applying to the entire country. Our standard...
CORNISH: It doesn't apply. Right? States volunteer if they want to join California in having a similar standard.
WHEELER: Auto manufacturers will not manufacture two different vehicles. Our standard is going to make cars cheaper, more energy-efficient. It's going to lower the price of a car, and it's going to save lives.
CORNISH: The internal EPA memo surfaced with the Associated Press talking about auto emission standards. It was saying that what you guys are proposing could result in 17 more deaths a year than the Obama standards.
WHEELER: No. We don't believe that that's accurate. We're using NTSA's data. They're the ones that track public safety and highway mortality. And their data shows that our proposal will save lives, overall. And as far as the four auto companies and their position with California, we haven't seen the details of that deal so we don't know exactly what those auto companies may have signed up for or what they may have agreed to. That was why my general counsel and the general counsel of the Department of Transportation sent that letter to California wanting to better understand what it is exactly that they believe they agreed to so that we can see whether or not they have the legal ability to make that kind of an agreement. You know, the Congress gave Department of Transportation and EPA the ability to set energy-efficiency standards.
CORNISH: They also gave California this ability to have a waiver, right? I mean, that is part of...
WHEELER: Only for extraordinary...
CORNISH: ...The Clean Air Act.
WHEELER: Only for extraordinary and compelling reasons. We are not...
CORNISH: And you feel those reasons have changed?
WHEELER: It's not that they've changed, that they just aren't there and they haven't been there.
CORNISH: Regarding the cost of cars - because this is something the administration has talked about - Governor Newsom has said that China is going to eliminate the internal combustion engine. India, Japan - the rest of the world, they're moving in a new direction. Isn't this move hurting the country's ability to compete globally?
WHEELER: Not at all. What this does - again, it sets a floor. And any car manufacturer can - if they can make the advances and produce the electric vehicles or other vehicles that consumers want to buy, that's great. And we applaud that, and we encourage that. But the Obama standard anticipated that there would be 50% electronic - electric vehicles by 2025. Right now, electric vehicles only make up 2% of the fleet being sold here in the United States.
CORNISH: Won't this discourage that development or that innovation?
WHEELER: No. But we can't - you can't force Americans to buy a product that they don't want to purchase.
CORNISH: This is part of a larger administration deregulation effort, right? Many of these rollbacks, not just this one, are being challenged in court. I mean, how confident are you that this legacy of deregulation is going to withstand legal challenge?
WHEELER: We're very confident 'cause we're following the statutes. We're following the law. Perfect example is what we did for the utility sector. The Obama administration's Clean Power Plan was stayed by the Supreme Court. That was an historic stay. They had never stepped in at that stage in litigation and actually issued a stay for a Clean Air Act regulation. They did that because I believe the Clean Power Plan was outside of the Clean Air Act. It was outside the bounds of the law.
CORNISH: Are you hoping this, too, will go to the Supreme Court?
WHEELER: Well, I think we need that certainty. So I do hope if we are challenged on it, it goes to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court upholds what we're doing. But we are closely following - unlike the previous administration - we are closely following the statutes, and we're closely following the Supreme Court decisions. So our regulations are based in the law, and that is what a regulatory agency is supposed to do.
CORNISH: Now, my time is almost up, but I want to ask this because people in California have been asking it. Which is, is this political punishment? Is this punitive against a blue state that has been suing this administration quite a bit?
WHEELER: Absolutely not. It's not punitive at all. You know, the automobile manufacturers were not able to comply with the Obama standard. Only three companies were able to meet the Obama standards. And the Obama standards...
CORNISH: But four companies had said they were going to work with California. OK? So they had...
WHEELER: They said - but we don't know.
CORNISH: They were working on it. (Laughter) They were working on it. So California thinks that the administration has swooped in, and the governor has alluded to this idea of a kind of political vengeance.
WHEELER: There's no political vengeance at all. I just wish the California officials would focus more on cleaning up the air in their state than trying to look like they're doing something globally for climate change. I think they're the ones politicizing this. They don't like what the president says on climate change so they're trying to show the rest of the world that they can do a lot, when they really should be focusing on providing clean air and clean water to their citizens. 'Cause they're not doing that.
CORNISH: Andrew Wheeler is administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Thank you for your time.
WHEELER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.