California defiant as Trump administration threatens to halt highway funds over smog

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Wednesday, September 25, 2019


California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

The Trump administration is threatening to withhold highway funding from California if it doesn’t clean up its air quality. But California leaders are firing back, hard — and accusing the federal government of actually preventing it from cleaning up its pollution.

“We won’t be intimidated by this brazen political stunt,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said in a defiant statement after the Environmental Protection Agency threat.

California leaders are angry that the Trump administration took away California’s authority to curb greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles last week — which they have repeatedly argued would also help it clean up lung-choking smog in the state.

“We won’t go back to the days when our air was the color of mud,” Newsom said. “We won’t relive entire summers when spending time outside amounted to a public health risk.”

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler’s letter was made public as California leaders were mounting an offensive against President Trump for his loss of leadership on climate change at this week’s United Nations climate summit. They seized on the high-profile forum to show they were the true leaders on environmental issues.

 “I don’t know what the hell happened to this country that we have a president that we do today on this issue,” Newsom (D) said to applause in New York, according to the Los Angeles Times. “Because 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.”

Newsom was also quick to insist the threat against his left-leaning state was based in pure politics. Wheeler’s letter to the California Air Resources Board said the state “has failed to carry out its most basic tasks under the Clean Air Act” and could risk losing federal money, as Juliet Eilperin and I reported Tuesday, the state is not alone in its struggles.

It’s true that some 40 counties in California do not meet federal air quality standards. California’s mountain ranges form cauldron-like basins in which smog brews. And the high-sky number of people who live in the state, along with the many cars they drive, don’t help.

But about three dozen other states not targeted with EPA letters also have counties that did not meet standards for six pollutants as of the end of August. And the California Air Resources Board said the federal government isn’t helping it fight pollution from one of its biggest sources there: cars.

“This letter appeared only days after EPA attacked our state authority on cars, increasing air pollution while at the same time limiting our ability to reduce it,” CARB Executive Officer Richard Corey said in a statement responding to Wheeler’s letter.

Speaking in New York on Tuesday following the U.N. climate summit, Newsom suggested that California is doing more than most states to curb pollution. “We’re not asserting a paradigm, we’re proving it,” he said of creating jobs in green industries. “That paradigm is now challenged by an EPA that’s been weaponized by the Trump administration.”

Newsom’s predecessor as governor, Jerry Brown, attended the climate summit, too, using it to launch an initiative with a geopolitical rival, China, which is now quarreling with the Trump administration over trade.

The California-China Climate Institute, based at Beijing’s Tsinghua University and the University of California at Berkeley, will tackle climate problems both technological and political. Brown founded it with China’s most senior and veteran climate policy official, Xie Zhenhua. The Chinese province of Guangzhou will also participate.

Brown acknowledged in an interview with The Post last week he was forming the partnership at a time of deep distrust of China amid the trade war. But he said it made sense “because of California’s unique role in enforcing clean air laws, we’ve developed expertise, engineers, lawyers, technicians.”

The partnership is especially striking given Trump’s ongoing feuds with California on tackling pollution.

Trump “comes along, denies climate change and wants to stop the state that’s doing the most about it,” he said. “It makes no sense. I have to say that borders on the criminal.”

Carol Morello and Steven Mufson contributed reporting.