Car exhaust pipe. Photo by Matt Boitor/Unsplash

EPA's War on California

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Article Was Originally Published October 9, 2019 in The Hill.

Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claims to be a friend of the states, as it boasts loudly about its support for “cooperative federalism” and its plans to “rebalance the power between Washington and the states.” But its actions tell a different story.

Sadly, it was no surprise last month when the Trump administration took aim at California by withdrawing the long-standing federal waiver that allowed California to impose its own stringent vehicle emission standards.

The waiver process has existed in one form or another for half a century. EPA has granted 50 waivers, but never revoked one. So, rescinding this waiver — granted five years ago — is a brazen attack on state authority. Not to mention that the standards EPA is putting in place will increase greenhouse gas emissions by 1.7 billion metric tons.

Last week, EPA’s war on California took another ominous turn, with a pair of threatening letters harshly criticizing the state’s air and water programs.  The letters led the bipartisan Environmental Council of States (ECOS) to express “serious concern” about unilateral actions by EPA that run counter to the spirit of cooperative federalism and the appropriate relationship between the federal government and the states. Their concerns included both the lack of advance consultation with states and the negative impacts of EPA actions on the states’ ability to protect people’s health and the environment.  

The first letter from EPA suggested that California had failed to carry out its most basic responsibilities under the Clean Air Act, resulting in millions of Californians living in areas that do not meet national air quality standards. EPA threatened to withhold federal highway money from the state because of its inaction on some decades-old state Clean Air Act plans. It gave the state all of two weeks to respond.

Naturally, the letter failed to mention that the state’s air quality problems are a long-standing product of increasing vehicle emissions from a growing population and the state's topography and climate — the very issue the waiver addresses. Indeed, it was California’s efforts to protect air quality that prompted the California waiver authority in the first place. 

The threat in the second letter was not as direct, but the tone was just as nasty. EPA recited a litany of supposed water quality problems, despite the fact that water system violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act are higher in at least 40 other states. EPA attributed some to the state’s homeless population, and cited incidents of feces in the streets washing into local waters. It was based on a year-old report that EPA had never previously seen fit to mention. 

EPA singles out discharges into San Francisco Bay, but fails to mention its own proposal to eliminate funding for a program to protect and restore the bay. And the EPA budget’s biggest program cuts, $300 million, were to state programs for clean and safe water.

There was also a whopping $874 million proposed cut to a pair of highly successful state revolving loan funds that have tremendously improved our nation’s water infrastructure, with California targeted for a $65 million share of the infrastructure cuts. The EPA letter boasts about how much funding California has received without mentioning that its last budget proposed to cut $1.4 billion from support for states along with cutting $92 million slated for “cooperative federalism.” 

It is hard to see a constructive reason for the letters or their inquisitorial tone. EPA is not even putting a fig leaf over the fact that it has singled out California. It appears that, for the first time in its history, EPA is using its state oversight authority not to promote environmental compliance but to burden and discredit a state that the administration considers hostile.

Basing decisions on anything but environmental protection not only abuses EPA’s authority but undercuts the credibility of its future actions. One letter even hints that if EPA were to look more closely at the state’s programs and activities, it would find other problems that would be costly to address. That is uncomfortably reminiscent of an old-fashioned shakedown, and it is shameful. EPA’s regulatory powers should be used to promote environmental protection, not to retaliate for policy disagreements or carry out vendettas. Respect for the rule of law demands no less.

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