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How EPA's Proposed Rollback On Car Emissions Could Make Connecticut's Air Quality Worse

Douglas Healey
AP Images
The EPA wants to roll back auto emission standards enacted by the Obama Administration


This month, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it wants to “roll back” the strict auto emission standards enacted by the Obama Administration.

Jan Ellen Spiegel is the environmental reporter for the online news site, the CT Mirror. She spoke with WSHU's Morning Edition Host Tom Kuser about how this easing of restrictions could impact Connecticut.


Please explain, first of all, the emission standards that were put into place at the end of the Obama Administration.

These standards mostly affect greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gas emissions, carbon dioxide that come out of the tailpipe were added into emission standards in the wake of the Supreme Court decision that said, “Yes, greenhouse gas emissions have an impact on human health, and therefore they should be regulated.” So that’s what we’re taking about here, we’re talking about greenhouse gas emissions.

And why did the head of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, decide that he wanted to change those standards?

Well, I’m not gonna get inside his head, but what happened at the end of the Obama Administration is these greenhouse gas emission standards were put in place, going back to 2012, for the model year cars 2017 through 2025. With the contingency that there would be a midterm review of these, which was to finish by April of 2018. After the election in 2017, the Obama Administration undertook that midterm review to essentially enforce what it already had in place. The Trump Administration clearly was not pleased with this, under pressure from automakers and probably oil producers, because it would mean using less gasoline. The Trump Administration under Pruitt said that the Obama Administration had done this too quickly, and that they were gonna try to begin the process of trying to roll that back.

In your reporting you talk about how if this change were to come in standards, technically, it would not or should not impact Connecticut because we follow something that’s called the California waiver. So I think we need to understand what is the California waiver?

The California waiver was added into the Clean Air Act going back to something like 1970, when California wanted to set its own general emissions standards for automobiles. Back then, California had terrible, terrible smog and pollution problems, and they felt they needed stronger standards. Ultimately what happened is California was allowed to set its own emissions standards. And other states who felt that they also wanted some stricter emissions standards than the federal standards were allowed to follow either the federal standards, or California standards. Connecticut is one of about a dozen states plus the District of Columbia that follow the California waiver which means if you’re gonna buy a car in Connecticut, it’s gonna have emissions controls on it for, now, greenhouse gas emissions, and still just general particulate matter, the kind of, you know, dirty stuff that comes out of the tailpipe, that are stricter than the federal standards.

Can you give us a bit of a picture of where those dozen states that do follow the California waiver… where are they located?

They are the West Coast. Washington, Oregon, and California obviously. And then it’s the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic region from about Maine to the District of Columbia with the exception of New Hampshire. The states it doesn’t include are the Midwestern states that when you look at the air current patterns, those are the states that basically send their air to us. We get whatever their cars are putting into the atmosphere, plus whatever their power plants are putting into the atmosphere, and that’s one of the reasons Connecticut is not happy about this potential move by the EPA or a lot other moves related to whatever the Midwest is putting into its air

So we are literally downwind of many states and the pollution that they put into the air?

Yes, we are.

But it looks like the California waiver itself may also be in some sort of jeopardy. What could happen to it?

Secretary Pruitt indicated that he might go after the California waiver itself, which would essentially void it, and mean states like Connecticut, states like California would no longer have that option of using stricter standards for what comes out of their automobiles. 

I’d like to know more about what Connecticut’s environmental officials are saying about the proposed changes. In your reporting, what have you heard from them?

To say they’re not happy would be a rather major understatement. They take these goals, both greenhouse gas and trying to do something about general pollution and ozone levels, very seriously. There’s no way Connecticut as a state could meet these standards on their own without some help from other states. Which is why the state has fought for a long time to get Midwestern states to be forced to cut certain emissions from power plants and other things that end up here. There’s also the health impact. Officials in Connecticut point to that, we have known asthma problems here in certain areas, especially around where there’s a lot of traffic. 

Are we looking at really any immediate change for Connecticut as far as these proposals go?

In the short term, what you can see is sort of a stall-out of the progress in which case, kind of what you see is what you get right now, and nothing is going to improve while some of this stuff plays out. That play-out invariably would take years. Number one there’s a rule making process that would be required to change some of this stuff, and that in itself can take years. Throw in a few court cases, and you’ve got a whole bunch more years in there, so yes, in the long term we’re talking years, but if in the short term it stalls out progress, that’s not gonna help either.

You mean progress in further cleaning up Connecticut’s air?

Yes, yes.

Jan, thanks for your time this morning.

You’re welcome.

Jan Ellen Spiegel is the environmental reporter for the online news site, the CT Mirror.

Tom has been with WSHU since 1987, after spending 15 years at college and commercial radio and television stations. He became Program Director in 1999, and has been local host of NPR’s Morning Edition since 2000.