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In Conflict With Trump Agenda, California Sets Stricter Auto Emissions Standards


California's state regulators voted unanimously to go ahead with tough fuel standards setting up a potential conflict with the Trump administration. Now, California has been a leader in the world of cars and environmental regulations. The Golden State's clean air laws, for example, were precursors to the Federal Clean Air Act.

Now with the Trump administration's appointment of a climate change skeptic to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, California is positioning itself as the opposition especially when it comes to cars. NPR's Sonari Glinton covers the auto industry and was nice enough to pull over from his Sunday test drive to tell us more. Sonari, Welcome back. Thanks for joining us once again.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: It's good to be with you as always.

MARTIN: So what just happened in California?

GLINTON: Well, the California Air Resources Board which sort of predates the EPA voted unanimously to go ahead with its clean car program and that mandates a certain percentage of cars in the fleet be zero emissions or essentially electric. And the state already has about half of the electric cars. Though, their sales are going pretty slowly right now.

But what it did was it doubled down against the administration who voted to look back into tough fuel standards that the Obama administration put into place.

MARTIN: Now, Scott Pruitt is the Trump administration's new head of the Environmental Protection Agency. He was on the ABC News program "This Week" talking about his plans to re-evaluate fuel standards. Let's play a short clip.


SCOTT PRUITT: We ought to focus on efficiency - fuel efficiency - for cars that people really want to buy. This process of building cars that no one purchases in order to meet these standards that were previously said - actually it's counter helpful to the environment because people don't buy the new cars...

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But will you let California go forward?

PRUITT: They keep older cars.

MARTIN: If you couldn't hear what he was just saying, he says because - Scott Pruitt saying because people don't buy the new cars, they keep the older cars. But help me understand what he's saying. I mean, Secretary Pruitt says that the focus on fuel efficient cars isn't that helpful because people are going to keep their older cars. But don't consumers want more fuel efficient cars?

GLINTON: They absolutely do. The number one thing that consumers want improved on their vehicles is fuel efficiency. However, at the same time, people are buying more and more SUVs. Though, those SUVs are more fuel efficient. What the standards are saying is that we are going to need to have far more electric cars on the road.

But what's interesting about the electric car, it's the only consumer product that I've heard of where the companies say build an interest first, and then we'll sell them. I mean, electric vehicles are really on the bubble here. And if these fuel standards are relaxed, many people in the industry see the electric car dying yet again. And that's really important when it comes to getting these big fuel savings.

MARTIN: So remind us again of why California gets to have its own rules and is the Trump administration saying something about that?

GLINTON: Well, California has the dirtiest air and the most cars, and that was what brought about the creation of the California Air Resources Board. And when the Clean Air Act came along, Congress allowed California to have a waiver to make its standards tougher than the national standards. Now, this is a wrinkle that really, really bugs the auto industry because essentially they have to deal with regulators in Washington and in the state of California.

And about 13 states sign on to California's tailpipe rules which means that about 40 percent of the country adheres to California's standards, so regulatory-wise California has a really, really big role. Though, the Trump administration so far says it's not about to get into this fight. Now, this is such a huge fight that almost every single environmental group or consumer group says that they would weigh in with a lawsuit.

MARTIN: What does this mean for the future of hybrid and electric cars? Because on the one hand, we keep hearing so much about them and yet what are you saying?

GLINTON: A lot of these cars are not making money, so even some of the more aggressive car companies look like if these fuel standards are rolled back, they will sort of drop some of their electric car programs. However, the wedge is California, China and Europe which all sort of are mandating right now that car companies have more and more zero emissions vehicles. So there's kind of this standoff right now, and it's going to play out over the next couple of years between the EPA and California.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Sonari Glinton. Sonari, thank you.

GLINTON: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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