Calif. officials excited to see Pruitt exit car debate

Source: Debra Kahn and Anne C. Mulkern, E&E News reporters • Posted: Saturday, July 7, 2018

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s resignation yesterday throws a welcome wrench into negotiations over the fate of joint state-federal fuel economy standards, from the perspective of California officials.

Pruitt’s moves to undo the fuel economy standards for light-duty vehicles that California and the Obama administration put in place through 2025 have rankled the Golden State as well as the 14 other states that have followed California’s lead, under a provision in the Clean Air Act that lets California set stricter-than-federal air pollution standards, subject to a waiver from EPA.

State officials figure Pruitt’s departure can only be good news for their clean cars program and their authority to pursue emissions cuts. “It can’t be any worse than it was,” said one state official.

California has already sued EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration over federal plans to redo the standards, which are pending approval from the Office of Management and Budget. California also has begun in-state proceedings to decouple from the federal standards in terms of enforcement (Climatewire, May 8).

Meanwhile, negotiations between federal officials and California are ongoing, although the tone has been bitter under Pruitt. Although Pruitt described a meeting last Friday with California Air Resources Board (CARB) Chairwoman Mary Nichols as “good,” Nichols struck a more combative note.

“We may have bonded over baked goods but the conversation was all business because we’re not backing up or slowing down on cleaner cars & climate action,” she tweeted afterward.

Automakers want officials from California, EPA and the Transportation Department to reach a deal to avoid two sets of standards. That hasn’t changed with Pruitt’s departure, one of the two major automaker trade groups said yesterday.

“The proposed fuel economy/greenhouse gas rule for light duty vehicles is under review at OMB and we expect it to be announced as planned very soon,” the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an association of 12 of the largest car manufacturers, said in a statement. “Once the proposed rule is released, we expect to see more in-depth discussions between California and the Administration. Our strong preference remains a negotiated settlement, with increased stringency year over year that reflects marketplace realities, especially at this delicate time in the market.”

Pruitt’s deputy, Andrew Wheeler, who will take over as acting administrator, is seen as more measured and conciliatory than Pruitt and could offer a way forward on clean car talks.

“We have to get back to the table with his replacement and secure our nation-leading auto standards ASAP,” said CARB board member and former Democratic state Sen. Dean Florez. “If [Wheeler] realizes that saving coal is not the job of the EPA, then he might start in a better place than Pruitt.”

Others doubt that’s the case.

Simon Mui, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, argued that Pruitt’s departure won’t change the outcome of the negotiations.

“I don’t think it will make an ounce of difference in terms of the Trump administration unlawfully rolling back clean car standards and attacking state authority to establish air pollution controls,” said Mui. “To think that the corruptness that Scott Pruitt has demonstrated hasn’t leaked into the arguments and efforts to undermine state authority, I think that’s wishful thinking.”

Dan Farber, professor of environmental law at the University of California, Berkeley, said that from what he knows about Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist and aide to Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), “he’s probably going to be more agile” in approaching the battle with California.

“He’s a lobbyist. He’s used to trying to persuade people, get half the loaf if you can’t get the whole loaf,” Farber said. Wheeler is “as bad or worse” than Pruitt in wanting more coal and oil use, Farber added, but “he’s more likely to want to get policies that will stick, that won’t result in litigation, even if he has to give up a bit of ground to do it … as opposed to just wanting to take extreme stands and to fight, which was basically Pruitt’s approach.”

Farber pointed out that automakers have been pressuring EPA to find a compromise and avoid years of litigation and regulatory uncertainty. “The car industry doesn’t want either California to have a separate standard or years of litigation over California’s rights,” he said. “Really, they don’t want to get years down the road and not know what standards apply because it’s still in court.”

No matter how Wheeler decides to proceed with California, environmentalists are cheering Pruitt’s departure.

“It interrupts the momentum, that’s what it does,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California. “I can only believe that it’s going to be better, not worse. I don’t know how you could have gotten a worse candidate for administrator at EPA.”