A nonprofit environmental law firm based in San Francisco, Earthjustice provides representation for a wide range of organizations focused on the environment. Comprised of more than 130 attorneys, the firm aims to strengthen environmental laws and regulations—at the local, regional, national, and international levels—by challenging unjust and detrimental practices in court.
Earthjustice’s battle for environmentally sound legislation has helped it to earn its share of court victories. In addition, it has faced some ongoing challenges that include its recent lawsuit—in partnership with the Sierra Club and other stakeholders—designed to uphold California’s standards for greenhouse gas emissions and zero-emission vehicles.
Supporting California’s right—and need—to exceed emissions standards
Through the lawsuit, which was filed in November 2019, Earthjustice and its pro-public health and pro-environment coalition partners seek to challenge the Environmental Protection Agency’s revocation of California’s zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) standards and a waiver that permits it to set more stringent state-wide standards governing greenhouse gas emissions in motor vehicles.
California has long served as a leader in setting forward-looking standards for vehicle emissions. According to representatives of the Sierra Club, the EPA’s disregard of the state’s clean air agenda is yet another example of the pro-polluter agenda that has emerged under the Trump administration.
For decades, the EPA authorized waivers in California under the Clean Air Act in respect to its highly successful program to reduce pollution and protect air quality. The waivers were based on the fact that the state’s clean air standards met or exceeded those required by federal legislation, that they were necessary to meet the state’s specific circumstances, and that they were consistent with federal Clean Air Act sections on mechanical feasibility and adequate lead time notice provided to vehicle manufacturers.
Protecting the environment against climate change
According to the Sierra Club, the lawsuit holding the EPA accountable represents a crucial step in protecting the environment from the effects of accelerating climate change. The Sierra Club has gone on record stating its determination to challenge the Trump administration, and car manufacturers have allied themselves with the organization in court. The goal: to support states in acting on their right to protect the health of their residents.
Through one of the attorneys on its team, Earthjustice delivered a powerful statement echoing the Sierra Club’s resolve. Earthjustice noted that the Trump administration, through its revocation of the waiver for California, is placing the profits of corporate polluters above its duty to protect the health and well-being of humans.
Earthjustice eagerly anticipates having the opportunity to go to court to defend California’s right to take the lead in addressing the problem of climate change, a duty that the Trump administration has refused.
A history lesson for Trump’s EPA
California’s efforts to curb airborne pollutants date back generations. Smog was already a problem in Los Angeles as far back as the days of World War II. By the 1950s, it had become obvious that automobile exhaust was the leading source of the dangerous phenomenon of photochemical smog.
The state established the California Air Resources Board (CARB) in 1967, three years before the passage of the federal Clean Air Act. Federal lawmakers, noting California’s early and ongoing efforts, authorized the state government to maintain its individual motor vehicle emissions standards that exceeded those at the federal level. This determination acknowledged the combination of circumstances that Californians struggled with: geography, terrain, and a rapidly increasing population and industrial base.
Since this decision, California’s adoption of stricter standards has led to the nation’s first-ever emissions standards for oxides of nitrogen produced by motor vehicles, as well as the development of the catalytic converter. The latter innovation proved to be a game-changer in decreasing the amount of smog-forming exhaust from motor vehicles. By the 1990s, the fuel and automobiles sold in California became the cleanest of anywhere.
A sudden setback
In 2005, the California Air Resources Board requested a new Clean Air Act waiver from the EPA, offering it the ability to continue to set higher standards for greenhouse gas emissions in motor vehicles beginning in 2009.
The EPA originally denied the request for the new waiver in 2008, but the state requested a reconsideration. In January 2009, President Barack Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum that directed the EPA to investigate whether denying the waiver was in keeping with the goals of the Clean Air Act. In July of that year, the EPA granted the waiver to California, applying it beginning with the roll-out of new motor vehicle models.
However, due to the Trump administration’s decision to rescind the Clean Air Act waiver that was extended to California in 2009, the EPA has now moved in the opposite direction with sweeping implications for state-level environmental regulations across the country.
A total of 13 states and the District of Columbia have followed California’s lead in imposing more stringent regulations on motor vehicle pollution. By adopting stronger regulations, these states are working to safeguard the health and well-being of, collectively, about 40 percent of Americans.
Continuing the global fight for cleaner air
In spite of California’s notable success in reducing pollution and upgrading air quality for its residents, experts note that the state continues to face the same challenges that prompted it to exceed federal requirements in the first place: a rapidly growing population, continued infrastructure build-out, and the now rapidly accelerating problem of climate change.
state needs to exceed the baseline federal Clean Air Act provisions in order to
continue its work in protecting its people and their quality of life.
Basing its work on cutting-edge scientific research, the California Air Resources Board has worked constructively over the years with the federal government, as well as with politicians from both major parties, to implement a system of pollution controls that have established California as a leader in protecting air quality.
Earthjustice seeks to ensure that the state will continue to serve as a model in this respect for governments around the world that are struggling to contain and reverse the threat posed by climate change.