Trump foils pick climate fight they won’t likely finish

Source: Debra Kahn, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, May 3, 2018

California officials are launching broadsides against the Trump administration’s climate policies, but the state’s main climate commanders probably won’t be around for the marquee battles.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D) held a press conference in Sacramento yesterday to announce a lawsuit over EPA’s plans to ditch Obama-era fuel economy standards for passenger vehicles. It’s the state’s 10th lawsuit against the Trump administration’s EPA and its 32nd against the administration overall.

“The state of California is not looking to pick a fight with the Trump administration, but we are ready for one,” Becerra said.

He was flanked by Gov. Jerry Brown (D) and California Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols, each of whom has decades of experience in environmental policy and politics — and each of whom probably won’t be in state government past the end of this year. California’s leadership changes come as the state lurches closer to battles that could substantively affect its authority to reduce greenhouse gases.

Brown, 80, is stepping down due to term limits. Nichols, who also served as head of the state’s main air agency under former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and during Brown’s second term as governor, from 1979 to 1983, is expected to step down, as well.

“Mary Nichols has indicated she plans to retire, and things could change for us depending on who comes on as the next board chair,” Veronica Eady, CARB’s executive officer for environmental justice, said in an interview last month. “I hope that our next chair is also strong and decisive.”

Agency staff declined to discuss Nichols’ plans yesterday, but other Sacramento observers also expect her to retire. “I’ve heard her say that she would essentially go out with Gov. Brown,” said Bill Magavern, policy director for the Coalition for Clean Air.

While 16 other states and Washington, D.C., are joining California in its latest suit, the Golden State has a natural bully pulpit due to its size and economic clout, as well as the exceptionality granted to it by the Clean Air Act. Because of California’s severe air pollution, with EPA’s permission it can set limits stricter than the federal standards for mobile sources, and other states can follow it, as 13 plus the District of Columbia have done. Under President Obama, EPA worked with CARB to set the joint state-federal fuel economy standards for passenger vehicles through 2025 that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is now undoing.

“This is a science-based attack that we make on these characters in Washington that, in the name of making America great, are making us weak,” Brown said at yesterday’s conference. He also dubbed the EPA leader “Outlaw Pruitt.”

“This is about health, it’s about life and death, and this character in Washington, with his expensive travel tastes and funny little redecorating plans that cost the American people all sorts of money, is riding roughshod over the laws of this country and the health of our people,” Brown said.

Pruitt has said as recently as last week that he isn’t planning to try to revoke California’s authority for its existing standards, and yesterday’s suitdoesn’t address the state’s Clean Air Act authority. Rather, it alleges that EPA violated the federal Administrative Procedure Act by “arbitrarily and capriciously” deciding that the Obama-era targets for tailpipe exhaust were too ambitious.

A federal draft proposal leaked last week, though, would freeze fuel economy standards at 2020 levels through 2026 and takes aim at California’s authority via the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, which gives the power to regulate fuel economy solely to the Transportation Department (E&E News PM, April 27).

Who’s ‘David Pruitt’?

More battles likely await Brown’s and Nichols’ successors.

“I do think that we’re going to have new leadership next year on our air and climate issues, and it’s going to be very consequential who those leaders are,” Magavern said. “It really matters a lot who we choose as governor and who that governor chooses to run the Air Resources Board.”

Observers say they aren’t worried that the incoming Democratic candidates will lack zeal. The leading Democratic candidates to replace Brown, including front-runner Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, are all pledging to continue or even advance Brown’s climate policies (E&E Daily, Feb. 27). And while no candidate can claim to match Brown’s four terms of gubernatorial experience, his clout may be falling on deaf ears at the federal level, Magavern pointed out.

“I don’t know if Trump even has enough knowledge of history to understand Jerry Brown’s historical role,” Magavern said. “With most people you would think they did, but with him, there’s so little consciousness there.”

Becerra, as well, is running for election to his current post. Brown appointed him attorney general in 2017 to fill the spot vacated by Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) when she won election to the Senate. His Democratic opponent, state Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, is running to his left, with a particular focus on climate issues. The two have sparred over taking contributions from oil companies, and Jones has vowed to investigate Exxon Mobil Corp.’s knowledge of climate change risks (E&E Daily, March 23).

Becerra stumbled early in yesterday’s press conference, calling the EPA administrator “David Pruitt.” Another California official said the flub was understandable.

“Well, he never calls Mary or returns phone calls, so I don’t blame California officials for not knowing his name,” CARB board member and former state Sen. Dean Florez (D) said of Pruitt. “He just talks at California, not with California, which is why this lawsuit is being filed. Maybe he will show up to court?”

Florez said he wasn’t concerned about a change in tack under the next administration.

“The new governor or next CARB chair might plow and seed further initiatives, but the ground they chose will not change, and in that sense, I don’t worry about them both leaving for better pastures,” Florez said. “Whoever takes over needs simply to mind the field they have planted — it’s a pretty simple job.”