("The sense of smell explores." - Brillat-Savarin)
Sunday, March 12, 2017
Can California stay clean?
Stakes are high for the Environment
By Noah Feldman, from The Napa Register
The Trump administration is considering a new assault on American legal and constitutional structures by taking on federalism — and vehicle emissions. Specifically, the Environmental Protection Agency reportedly will try to revoke a waiver that California has enjoyed for 45 years, which allows the state — and any state that wants to copy it — to regulate tailpipe emissions more stringently than the federal government does.
A revocation by President Donald Trump and the executive branch is almost certainly unlawful. The Clean Air Act expressly says that California must be granted the waiver if its emissions rules are “at least as protective of public health and welfare” as the federal government’s. That means anything more protective must be granted. If the revocation happens, there is sure to be a protracted legal fight.
The stakes are high for the environment. Because 15 states follow California, and cars sold in states bordering those states may comply with California rules, 130 million people are potentially affected.
But the stakes are also high for the federal design of the Constitution. The California waiver provision reflects the delicate balance between states and the federal government in environmental regulation. Revoking it falls within Congress’s power, not the president’s.
The Clean Air Act’s waiver provision is unusual — and it flows from federalism principles.
Under the Constitution, as a default, both states and the federal government share the capacity to regulate most activities. The states have an inherent regulatory power, known as the “police power.” The federal government gets its power to regulate from Congress’s authority to make laws on matters affecting interstate commerce. State and federal power can overlap, as in the case of the punishment of drug crimes.
Because federal law is the supreme law of the land, according to the Constitution, federal law trumps state law when the two conflict.
Congress has a special power that allows it to deal with that conflict by barring states from regulating in areas where they might interfere with federal rules. This power is called “preemption”: Congress “preempts” state law when it has occupied the whole field of regulation to the exclusion of the states. Sometimes Congress says expressly that it’s preempting state laws; sometimes the preemption is implicit.
The Clean Air Act is an example of federal preemption — in part. Section 7543 of the law says that no state “shall adopt or attempt to enforce any standard relating to the control of emissions from new motor vehicles.” That includes “certification, inspection, or any other approval relating to the control of emissions from any new motor vehicle.”
Yet as soon as the law takes away states’ regulatory power, it restores it to California. The law says the EPA administrator “shall ... authorize California to adopt and enforce standards.” It’s up to California (not the federal government) to determine “that California standards will be, in the aggregate, at least as protective of public health and welfare as applicable Federal standards.”
The only ways to block California from using its own standard are if the EPA administrator determines that the California rules are arbitrary and capricious — which they aren’t — or if “California does not need such ... standards to meet compelling and extraordinary conditions.” So long as Los Angeles has smog, the conditions for restricting emissions are going to be compelling.
The historical reason for this design is that California had been regulating emissions long before the federal government got into the act.
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