EPA Threatens to Cut California Road Funds Over ‘Chronic’ Smog

Midtown Los Angeles, shrouded in haze.

(CN) – Amid a growing dispute over climate change and vehicle emissions standards, the Trump administration on Tuesday threatened to withhold highway funding and other federal grants from California over its “chronic air quality problems.”

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler accused California in a letter of having hundreds of backlogged air quality improvement plans and 34 million people living in places with air quality below national standards. Wheeler claims California is failing to comply with its “most basic tasks” under the Clean Air Act.

“As evidenced by the EPA’s recent work on interstate air pollution issues as well as analysis accompanying its rulemakings, California’s chronic air quality problems are not the result of cross-state air pollution or this administration’s regulatory reform efforts,” Wheeler said in a letter to the California Air Resources Board, dated Sept. 24.

Wheeler’s letter comes on the heels of the state’s latest high-profile lawsuit against the Trump administration, this time over California’s longstanding right to set emissions rules that are stricter than the federal government’s.

The White House wants to roll back existing federal emissions standards – a product of negotiations between California, automakers and the Obama administration in 2013- and in the process revoke the state’s ability to require automakers to comply with its stricter fuel mileage rules.

Federal regulators argue loosened standards will allow automakers to produce “far less expensive cars” and allow them to follow just one rather than a patchwork of laws. More than a dozen states have voluntarily adopted California’s current rules.

The move announced last week by the president during a fundraising trip to California certainly didn’t catch state officials off guard, as they have been preparing for an emissions fight for more than a year.

This summer, California reached a deal with Ford, BMW, Honda and Volkswagen to protect the state’s existing fuel mileage requirements for new cars. The four automakers, which account for nearly 30% of U.S. auto sales, have committed to implementing California’s standards nationwide if the Trump administration is allowed by the courts to adopt weakened standards.

“As a leader in producing efficient, low- and zero-emission vehicles, Honda believes this is a win for our customers and for the environment,” Honda said of the agreement.

Predictably, the agreement roiled the president and the U.S. Department of Justice quickly launched an antitrust probe.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is currently participating at a climate change confab in New York, cast Wheeler’s letter as a “brazen political stunt.”

“The White House has no interest in helping California comply with the Clean Air Act to improve the health and well-being of Californians,” Newsom said in a statement. “This letter is a threat of pure retaliation. While the White House tries to bully us and concoct new ways to make our air dirtier, California is defending our state’s clean air laws from President Trump’s attacks.”

The threat to withhold federal highway funding is based on more than 130 California smog-reduction projects the EPA claims are behind schedule. In the letter, Wheeler notes that California owns more than one-third of the EPA’s overall backlog and advises it to give up on any outdated plans by Oct. 10.

If the EPA decides to nix the various existing smog plans in places like Sacramento and Ventura counties, it could begin withholding federal funding within 18-24 months.

“We certainly want to avoid these statutory triggers, but our foremost concern must be ensuring clean air for all Americans. That is our goal,” Wheeler said.

Like Newsom, environmentalists are accusing the Trump administration of trying to punish California for working out a deal with the major automakers.

“This ‘foremost concern’ is from a man and a Trump EPA taking away California tools to cut smog, soot and carbon pollution from vehicles,” Natural Resources Defense Council clear air director John Walke said in a tweet. “And California’s discussions with four automakers willing to meet the cleaner car standards are what prompted the Trump administration’s political tantrum and retaliation.”

California opened another environmental fight on Tuesday with a lawsuit challenging the EPA’s recent determination that salt ponds near the San Francisco Bay aren’t protected by the Clean Water Act.

The state believes the decision was made at the behest of developers and will hamper restoration of the bay’s damaged ecosystem and tidal areas. It wants to protect the over 1,300 acres of salt ponds in Redwood City from future development.

“It’s a sad day when the country’s ‘environmental protection agency’ looks at San Francisco Bay and doesn’t see a body of water that it should protect,” said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra of the lawsuit. “We should restore the bay, not build on top of it.”

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