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EPA Restores California’s Clean Air Act Waiver, Allowing the State to Set Its Own Motor Vehicle Emissions Standards

On March 9, 2022, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rescinded a rule promulgated by the Trump Administration and revived California’s Clean Air Act waiver, allowing the state to set its own greenhouse gas emissions for cars and establish a zero-emissions vehicle program.

This move will effectively reinstate California’s Advanced Clean Cars Program, which has been adopted by California and opted into by 16 other states and the District of Columbia. The program regulates both smog-related pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions in new light- and medium-duty vehicles, with increasingly stringent regulations that apply currently through model year 2025 vehicles.


Section 209 of the Clean Air Act prohibits any state from adopting emissions standards more stringent than the federal Clean Air Act’s standards. However, the Section also includes a waiver provision that allows EPA to waive the prohibition so that a state may promulgate its own motor vehicle emissions standards in lieu of the federal standards. Such a waiver was granted for California’s Advanced Clean Car Program in 2013. That waiver was subsequently by the Trump Administration in 2019 through the Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient Vehicles rule (the “One National Program Rule” or “SAFE-1”), setting off litigation on the issue.

Additionally, Section 177 of the Clean Air Act allows other states to adopt California’s motor vehicle emissions standards when a valid waiver exists and if such standards are identical to California’s. The SAFE-1 also interpreted Section 177 in a way that prevented other states from adopting California emissions standards, even with a valid Section 209 waiver in place.

The March 9, 2022, action by EPA reversed SAFE-1 “by finding that the actions taken under the previous administration as a part of SAFE-1 were decided in error and are now entirely rescinded.” EPA also withdrew the SAFE-1 interpretation of the Clean Air Act that prohibited other states from adopting California’s motor vehicle emissions standards. As a result, other states may choose to adopt and enforce California’s emissions standards in lieu of the federal standards.

Restoring California’s wavier and rescinding the previous interpretation of Section 177 are the Biden Administration’s latest steps to strengthen vehicle emissions standards, in addition to the administration’s recent finalization of a greenhouse gas emissions rule for cars and light trucks and a proposal to strengthen emission standards for heavy-duty vehicles and engines starting in 2027.

© 2023 ArentFox Schiff LLPNational Law Review, Volume XII, Number 76

About this Author

Sarah L. Lode Antitrust Attorney Schiff Hardin Chicago, IL

Sarah has worked on numerous matters pertaining to antitrust law, products liability, general civil litigation, and patent law. She has drafted memoranda; orders for cases involving social security disability benefits, Section 1983, and state-law tort claims; and motions for summary judgment, motions to dismiss, and discovery requests for federal and state courts.

Sarah’s experience as the first line of contact for veteran clients as a PILI graduate fellow and in her work for a solo practitioner honed her ability to swiftly absorb key case facts, understand client goals, and quickly...

Daniel Deeb Civil Litigation Attorney Schiff Hardin

Dan has been practicing environmental law for more than 20 years. His practice includes all facets of environmental law permitting, compliance and litigation, including federal and state cases involving the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, RCRA, CERCLA, FIFRA, TSCA, brownfields redevelopment, and state analogs. Before practicing law, Dan worked as a senior chemist for an environmental consulting firm and clerked for the U.S. EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. He is a frequent lecturer and has written about environmental legal issues for a variety of publications. His...