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Trump's EPA threatens California with highway funding cuts over 'worst air quality'

Tribune News Service logo Tribune News Service 9/24/2019 By Michael Wilner, McClatchy Washington Bureau
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NEW YORK — The Trump administration is ratcheting up its threats against California with a letter warning the state faces sanctions – including cuts in federal highway funding – over its “failure” to submit complete reports on its implementation of the Clean Air Act.

In the letter to the California Air Resources Board, Andrew Wheeler, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, wrote that the state had the “worst air quality in the United States” and had “failed to carry out its most basic tasks” under the federal law. 

a view of a city: Los Angeles traffic on the 105 freeway near the 405 interchange in Southern Calif. © Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/TNS Los Angeles traffic on the 105 freeway near the 405 interchange in Southern Calif.

That law requires states to submit implementation plans to the EPA outlining their efforts to cut emissions of six types of pollutants. When President Donald Trump entered office, the administration faced a backlog of over 700 reports, and roughly 140 of those that remain are from California, Wheeler said in an interview.

“When I learned about this a couple months ago, the question I asked the staffer was, ‘why are we holding on to these – why haven’t we acted?’” Wheeler told McClatchy. “And the response I got back was, ‘we didn’t want to deny them and they couldn’t approve them.’ Well that’s ridiculous to allow 34 million people to live in areas not in compliance with our air standards.”

The administration will give California until October 10 to rescind their “incomplete” plans and resubmit new reports addressing 82 municipalities facing noncompliance.

Its failure to do so will result in “disapproval,” another EPA official said, triggering “sanctions clocks” under the law that would penalize the state with cuts to highway funding – and allow the federal government to impose an implementation plan of its own.

That could amount to a substantial penalty for a state that receives more highway funds than any other state in the country. According to the Department of Transportation California is projected to receive more than $19 billion from the Federal Highway Administration between fiscal years 2016 and 2020.

Wheeler’s warning to California is the Trump administration’s latest front in a protracted battle with the state over climate change and, in particular, the state’s unique authority to set its own standards for carbon dioxide emissions – a potent greenhouse gas. The EPA moved last week to rescind the federal waiver allowing California to do so, granted by the Clean Air Act of 1970, prompting a lawsuit from California joined within hours by 22 other states.

The administration is moving separately to write new auto emissions standards that would apply to the entire country, rolling back stricter requirements that were set by the Obama administration in agreement with California in 2012.

California leaders, however, have attempted to go around the administration, negotiating their own agreement with automakers to voluntarily lower emissions on new cars built through 2026. Thus far, four leading manufacturers have joined the agreement: Ford, Honda, BMW and Volkswagen.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom blasted Trump during remarks at a climate conference in New York on Monday, accusing the Republican president of infringing on states’ rights by undermining California’s ability to set its own standards. Newsom also criticized Trump for threatening car companies that negotiate with California.

“I don’t know what the hell happened to this country that we have the president that we do today, on this issue,” Newsom said Monday morning. “It’s a damn shame, it really is. I’m not a little embarrassed about it, I’m absolutely humiliated by what’s going on.”

The EPA administrator told McClatchy that he moved as quickly as possible to finalize a nationwide tailpipe standard, knowing that its final form would have to stand up to legal scrutiny.

He expects the case will reach the U.S. Supreme Court, setting up a landmark decision on states’ rights and environmental policy.

“Is time on our side? I’m assuming we’re going to have a second term, so I don’t think that’s going to matter. These issues will be decided by the courts over the course of his presidency,” Wheeler said. “The first part of the regulation could be wrapped up before the election. We’d have to move rather quickly, but it could be wrapped up.”

While the EPA’s latest move stated in the letter is not directly related to the fight over fuel efficiency standards, the administration is making an argument that could supplement its legal defense: that California has failed to uphold standards for pollutants other than greenhouse gases.

Only about a dozen of California’s 58 counties meet the EPA’s standards for Ozone air quality, while about half meet the standards for fine particulate matter in the air, such as dust, smoke or other inhalable particles. The counties that meet both standards are primarily rural and sparsely populated.

“California still has and maintains the ability to set standards for the health-based criteria pollutants,” Wheeler said. “I think the California Resources Board needs to spend and focus more time on the non-attainment areas that they have – the 82 non-attainment areas across the state. That has nothing to do with the CO2 or auto standards.”

The EPA letter is addressed to Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board whom Wheeler had accused of negotiating in “bad faith” as talks broke down between Washington and Sacramento, fueling the escalation.

“I have nothing personal against Mary – I’ve known her for 22 years. I actually like Mary and we’re working together on NOx reduction from heavy-duty trucks,” Wheeler said, referring to nitrogen oxides, a category of pollutants. “But she wasn’t on the CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards. She was mischaracterizing the negotiations we were having with California.”

The two have not spoken since the talks ended, Wheeler said.

“What the state of California is engaging in is social engineering,” Wheeler added. “We don’t think that’s appropriate.”

(Emily Cadei and Sophia Bollag contributed to this report.)

©2019 McClatchy Washington Bureau

Visit the McClatchy Washington Bureau at www.mcclatchydc.com

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