WASHINGTON — Former NHTSA chief Steven Cliff said his decision to leave the nation’s top auto safety regulator in September and return to the California Air Resources Board was not taken lightly.
“It was a very tough decision, I’ll be honest,” Cliff, now CARB’s executive officer, told Automotive News this month. “When I was recruited for this role, I had to really think long and hard about where I wanted to see my career go, where I thought I could add the most value.”
Cliff, 52, had been NHTSA’s acting administrator since February 2021, and was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in May 2022 as its 16th administrator. The agency had been without a permanent leader since 2017.
Sources: NHTSA, CARB
In August — less than three months after the Senate confirmation — CARB announced Cliff’s departure from NHTSA to run the state agency, replacing its previous executive officer, Richard Corey, who retired in June.
“To be able to set the path for us to achieve public health benefits, focus on environmental justice and equity here in California, rectify many of the sins of the past and move forward on solving climate change — that’s irresistible,” Cliff said.
A Napa Valley native, Cliff is no stranger to California’s clean-air agency. He began his career at CARB in 2008 as an air pollution specialist and later spent nearly four years as its deputy executive officer before joining NHTSA.
In making the decision to return to CARB, Cliff in part considered the status of NHTSA’s team and its rule-making efforts.
Cliff: The law is on our side.
During Cliff’s tenure at NHTSA, the agency finalized 17 rules, initiated 25 new rule-makings, issued six notices of proposed rule-makings and a request for comment on updates to the New Car Assessment Program.
“They’re back in the regulatory business,” he said. “They’re doing great work. They know how to have these conversations. They’ve gotten solid leadership who’s there to stay, support of the secretary and the entire administration in ways that haven’t necessarily been there in a while.”
At CARB, where Cliff oversees the agency’s staff of roughly 1,800 and its multibillion-dollar budget, he envisions an opportunity to drive a public health mission and address climate and air pollution more broadly.
California recently reclaimed its role as the nation’s major influencer for curbing greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks and driving sales of zero-emission vehicles after the EPA in March reissued a waiver under the Clean Air Act to allow the state to set regulations that are more stringent than federal rules.
The unique carve-out for the state, Cliff said, “means that we are co-equal in a lot of those discussions around emissions rules, and we can help push and collaborate with the federal government in ways that other states can support but don’t have the authority themselves to do.”
In August, CARB approved rules to phase out sales of nearly all new gasoline-powered cars, SUVs and pickup trucks by 2035. The rules require automakers to steadily increase their sales of ZEVs, including plug-in hybrids, in California, beginning with the 2026 model year.
Automakers will be allowed to meet no more than 20 percent of their overall ZEV requirement with plug-in hybrids, the board said.
“The rules are actually very consistent with the goals laid out by automakers,” said Cliff, citing commitments from General Motors and other manufacturers to electrify their new-vehicle lineups within a certain time frame.
For new-car dealers, Cliff said there’s now a greater opportunity to be seen as electric-vehicle leaders, especially as other states consider whether to adopt California’s more stringent rules.
“If they can get out in front, learn about the technology, be seen as leaders in their community, as those who are knowledgeable about the technology … they can get a real reputation as the go-to place for electric vehicles,” he said.
The rules also are more aggressive than President Joe Biden’s nonbinding target to reach 50 percent new ZEV sales by the end of the decade. In California, ZEVs will need to make up 68 percent of new-vehicle sales by 2030.
When asked whether the results of this year’s upcoming midterm election and 2024’s presidential election could again threaten California’s ability to set tougher regulations, Cliff said the law, technology and technical analysis are on CARB’s side.
“We always have to keep an eye on the future,” he said. “What I think is very clear in the law is we have the authority because of our unique air quality challenges here in California … to continue to set rules that are more stringent than the federal government. There is no case to be made that these aren’t achievable.”
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