GOP lauds states’ rights. Why is it against Calif. car rule?

Source: Zack Colman, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, August 14, 2018

An influential conservative organization last week mirrored a broad debate within Republican circles over states’ rights on environmental issues — it’s OK sometimes, but not always.

A resolution on vehicle fuel efficiency standards and whether to let California set its own stricter targets was on the docket at the American Legislative Exchange Council’s summit in New Orleans. But, in a way, so was the ideological right’s concept of what federalism really means.

State lawmakers on the group’s Energy, Environment and Agriculture Task Force unanimously supported the measure that backed the Trump administration’s proposal to weaken fuel targets and revoke California’s waiver, which allows it set more aggressive marks. Think tanks and private companies on the task force were more evenly split on the vote, though those familiar with the discussion said most supported the resolution.

California’s ability to establish separate car standards wasn’t the only issue related to states’ rights that surfaced, according to someone familiar with the discussions.

After the resolution had been forwarded to ALEC’s board of directors, state lawmakers debated whether New York’s rejection of natural gas pipelines was a legitimate use of states’ rights. The pipeline would pass through portions of New York on its way to other Northeastern states.

The conversation took an unexpected turn as some lawmakers flirted with the idea of using eminent domain — the taking of private property for public good — to force pipeline construction in a state that doesn’t want it.

That conservative lawmakers would openly discuss the seizure of private property by the state as a potential good was shocking, that person said.

“The people I thought would be most supportive of federalism were more supportive of building pipeline infrastructure,” the person said. “Are we going to support federalism in some areas and not others? I think there’s a broader federalism question for conservatives here.”

To some, the conversations about California’s rights to set loftier fuel efficiency standards and New York’s to nix pipelines smacked of a sort of a la carte federalism. The pipeline topic was tabled, with many in the room agreeing it warranted reopening at a future meeting.

“We support federalism broadly, but sometimes in practice it doesn’t work out the way it should in theory,” the person said.

The drama playing out in the Big Easy embodied an existential tension hovering over recent ALEC meetings: As its membership and the broader GOP drift to the right, the private sector has increasingly embraced renewable energy as it becomes cheaper and concerns grow about climate change.

That’s threatened legacy energy firms, too. Another resolution in a separate task force that called for ending all energy subsidies — including those enjoyed by oil and coal — that had previously been amended from merely opposing incentives for electric vehicles also failed (Climatewire, Nov. 15, 2017).

ALEC did not respond to a request for comment. It does not publicize its votes or its membership. Many of the sources who spoke to E&E News did so on the condition of anonymity.

That conservatives would oppose California’s legal ability to set its own car rules would seem to contradict the states’ rights ideology. But it’s not so simple with California and fuel economy standards, because the courts have never decided whether the Golden State’s permission to operate different tailpipe standards for local pollution like smog also applies to global greenhouse gas emissions.

There’s also a question of whether, by pure market size, California’s efficiency targets pre-empt a separate vehicle safety law that’s part of the overall fuel economy program (Climatewire, March 23).

“It was clear that the issue was whether or not California can dictate greenhouse gas emissions for the rest of the country and nobody had a concern about that, about supporting the resolution, on the public sector,” said another person familiar with the proceedings.

Others pushed back on that description of events. A source in the room said several legislators avoided the vote by leaving or walking in after the task force had given the resolution a green light.

“Big Oil had to pull out all the stops to barely win this vote,” the source in the room said. “That they had to go to such extreme lengths to win a vote at ALEC is unprecedented.”

In a way, the discussion at ALEC mirrored that national debate. State lawmakers were the conservative stand-ins for the Trump administration, and the think tanks and private companies played the role of auto companies, unions and parts suppliers who want the White House to come to a compromise with California.

The Trump administration’s proposal would freeze vehicle efficiency at 2020 levels, rather than escalate through 2026 as the Obama administration intended. It will weigh in on the federalism issue,s as well. The administration is taking comment on whether California should keep its Clean Air Act waiver to set more ambitious tailpipe standards.

To one observer, ALEC’s increasingly conservative membership among state lawmakers also reflected the flight of moderates from the national GOP — though for different reasons.

ALEC has been in the crosshairs of liberals for developing conservative model policies and resolutions that lawmakers then take to their state capitols for passage. Many centrists have left the organization rather than deal with the repercussions from outside agitators. A rush of renewable energy firms and organizations have recently joined ALEC in hopes of influencing its policies and resolutions.

“In many ways I think the folks at ALEC are even more far right than the administration is,” said the person who voiced concern about ALEC’s selective endorsement of federalism.

Others said the objection to California’s waiver and more aggressive fuel targets mirrors a rising displeasure in the GOP with big businesses that use federal policy for personal gain, said Paul Blair, director of strategic initiatives with Americans for Tax Reform.

He echoed the administration’s argument that scrapping the more stringent fuel targets would lower prices for consumers and help them purchase newer, safer cars.

“I think it is evidence of how clear cut this issue is for free-market lawmakers and free-market advocates,” Blair said. “Certainly, there are some business interests that oppose free-market principles who are on the private sector side of things.”