President Donald Trump continues to make political war on California over the environment.
Last week the Trump administration went after the state for doing too much under the Clean Air Act. This week it’s alleging that California isn’t doing enough under the same law.
Only in Trump’s world are both things possible. It feels more like political vendetta than fully formed policy, since last week’s action made it harder for California to deal with smog and this week’s could penalize California for its smog.
Neither action, it appears, is actually about addressing the climate crisis or even about cleaning the air, even though Trump often says he wants to have “the very cleanest air.” It’s about punishing a state that is currently challenging Trump’s agenda on climate, immigration, health care and just about everything else.
The Trump administration said California was doing too much under the law because it had set its own fuel economy standards in an effort to cut automobile tailpipe emissions. But that move came after Trump’s August 2018 decision to abandon stricter fuel economy standards set by the Obama administration.
The Trump administration then teed up a court fight by seeking to revoke a special status California has under the law to set its own, more stringent fuel economy standards. California has that waiver under the law because it first set its own tailpipe emissions standards in the 1960s, before the federal government followed suit – and it has the power to define standards for the whole US, because it’s so big.
California certainly has its share of problems with smog and air pollution, which is part of the reason it was given the waiver in the Clean Air Act to enact its own fuel economy standards
Trump, ever the Luddite, is skeptical of the climate crisis and worried that fuel-efficient cars are not as good as gas guzzlers. He’s argued that not requiring more fuel efficiency from car companies will help consumers. But he’s also happy to take on California every chance he gets because it’s a state that will never support him.
That’s what brings us to this week’s news, in which Trump is using the Clean Air Act against California.
EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler argued California has not properly documented its efforts to fight air pollution and threatened billions of dollars in highway funding.
“California has the worst air quality in the United States,” Wheeler wrote in a letter sent to the California Air Resources Board.
There is undeniable irony to California trying to enact fuel economy standards because it says the federal government’s inaction endangers lives, only to be accused by the administration of endangering lives for not doing enough on air quality.
In addition to California, 36 other states and the District of Columbia all have areas that fail to meet the pollution standards under the Clean Air Act. So far, only California has been threatened by Wheeler and the EPA.
It’s not the only example of Trump using federal money to make a political point. In August, a whistleblower raised concerns that Trump withheld military aid from Ukraine to pressure the country’s President to investigate Joe Biden.
He previously cut back federal funding for a California high-speed rail project.
Earlier this year he threatened to cut FEMA aid to California for forest fires.
His administration tried to take federal funding away from so-called sanctuary cities.
He engaged in the longest-ever partial shutdown of the federal government in an effort to force Congress to fund his border wall. When that didn’t work, he declared a national emergency to take money from the Pentagon for that purpose.
In Trump’s administration, federal dollars often feel like bargaining chips.
The battles between the federal government and California are proxy for a larger debate about the future of the country. Trump, in addition to wanting the states to bow to his authority, wants to further embrace fossil fuels and exploit the country’s status as the top worldwide energy producer. He envisions American companies making money by exporting natural gas.
He’s angered Californians by pushing plans to drill for oil off California’s shore and to engage in fracking on public lands.
California, meanwhile, is trying to cut down on the use of fossil fuels and embrace renewable sources of energy.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom and others in the state have embraced opposition to the Trump administration on climate issues and wrote in Newsweek that California’s efforts to embrace a green economy have helped the state rather than hurt it, as Trump alleges.
Both Newsom and Trump are in New York this week. Newsom is attending a climate summit alongside the UN General Assembly. Trump made a show of getting up to leave early from a UN meeting on climate change Monday.
The fight extends beyond the environment to issues like immigration (multiple cities in California have sought to provide sanctuary to undocumented immigrants) and Trump’s tax returns (a federal judge recently halted a new California law that would require presidential candidates in the state to release their tax returns).
But environmental issues remain at the front of the federal/state standoff.