CVIndependent

Fri08172018

Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

The punch-counterpunch sparring between the Trump administration and the state of California over rollbacks of federal environmental regulations is often described as a war of words, with neither the president nor Gov. Jerry Brown giving an inch.

Some of the disputes are largely symbolic—foot-stamping gestures from Washington, D.C., designed to resonate with the president’s core supporters rather than to hold up in court.

But the latest skirmish is serious: The federal Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to unravel fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks not only threatens California’s autonomy in setting its own emissions limits; it also could derail the state’s ability to reach its future greenhouse-gas-reduction goals.

“This is a politically motivated effort to weaken clean-vehicle standards with no documentation, evidence or law to back up that decision,” said Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the state Air Resources Board, in a statement. “This is not a technical assessment; it is a move to demolish the nation’s clean-car program. The EPA’s action, if implemented, will worsen people’s health with degraded air quality and undermine regulatory certainty for automakers.”

The gauntlet was thrown down by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, a darling of the Trump administration for his zeal in dismantling Obama-era environmental regulations. Even though Pruitt is the target of multiple investigations for alleged ethical transgressions and has found his job security in question, the effect of his current decisions may resonate far beyond his or his boss’ terms in office.

“There have been some troubling developments,” said Deborah Sivas, director of the Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford Law School. “But I think a lot of this is ultimately not going to happen.”


Putting the Brakes on Fuel Efficiency

Sivas said an attack on the fuel-efficiency standard is one of the critical fights for California, which must drastically reduce emissions from the state’s enormous transportation sector to stay on track in cutting carbon.

At issue are miles-per-gallon standards set near the end of the Obama administration. They require an average 45.4 miles per gallon by 2022 and more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025. Standards differ by vehicle type and are stricter for cars than for SUVs and light trucks.

Chet France, the former EPA senior executive who directed the office that crafted the regulations, says the fuel-standard rule is solid. France, who retired in 2012, said the benchmarks were the product of rigorous technical research and vetting with federal agencies, the California air board and car manufacturers.

The rule was reviewed again during the last days of the Obama administration and determined to be reasonable.

“The mid-term review was thorough and found that advances in auto-industry technology meant that meeting the standards was easier and cheaper than the EPA had predicted,” France said. “It concluded that the standards were attainable, and, if anything, they could have gone further.”

Pruitt called the current regulations inappropriate, saying they “set the standards too high.” He said his agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would revisit them, but he has not yet announced any proposed changes.

In explaining its rationale, the EPA is expected to dust off a decades-old analysis that suggests lighter, more fuel-efficient cars are not substantial enough to withstand crashes and thus pose a danger to drivers. Federal and state crash tests disprove that, but Sivas said she anticipates similar arguments.

The state is pushing back hard. Brown, during a recent visit to Washington, told reporters that the rollback is “not going to happen, and the attempts to do this are going to be bogged down in litigation long after we have a new president.”

On Tuesday, May 1, California filed its 32nd lawsuit against the Trump administration, asserting that in preparing to change the emission standards, the EPA is violating the Clean Air Act and failing to follow its own regulations. In announcing the suit, which 17 other states have joined, Brown conjured images of floods and wildfires ravaging the state as greenhouse gases warm the planet.

“This is real stuff,” he said. “I intend to fight this as hard as I can.”

In addition to rolling back mileage requirements, Pruitt has signaled that he may revoke California’s legal authority to establish its own emissions standards, independent of federal benchmarks. A dozen other states have adopted California’s standards; together, that coalition represents more than a third of the national auto market.

“California is not the arbiter of these issues,” Pruitt said in television interview in March. While the state may set its own limits on greenhouse-gas emissions, he said, it “shouldn’t and can’t dictate to the rest of the country.”

California’s right to request a waiver from federal clean-air laws is well established and, legal experts say, the burden would be high for the administration to convince a court that there is a compelling reason to change the longstanding policy.

Pruitt told lawmakers in Washington, D.C., last week that his agency was engaged in talks with California officials regarding proposed changes.

California Air Resources Board spokesman Stanley Young said the state has had three meetings with the EPA since December, adding: “Nothing substantive was discussed, so I wouldn’t characterize them as negotiations.”

He said the board had not seen a final proposal, and no future meetings were scheduled.

On Friday, Nichols tweeted to Pruitt: “Call me.”


Opening the Coast to Drilling

Perhaps the most consequential of the administration’s many moves to expand domestic-energy production is the Interior Department’s five-year plan to offer lease sales in federal waters off the outer continental shelf, including parcels where drilling has been banned for decades. That includes the California coast.

The plan, announced by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, envisions drilling in the Arctic, off the Hawaiian coast and in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, as well as expanding existing exploration into the eastern Gulf of Mexico. The leasing is scheduled to begin in 2019 off the north coast of Alaska, and then move to the lower 48 states, the agency said.

Zinke said the leasing plans would expand the country’s energy independence. “This is the beginning of an opening up,” he said, promising that the months-long public-comment period before enactment would include all stakeholders. “The states will have a voice.”

Whose voice will be heeded may be another matter. Florida’s governor has already negotiated directly with President Donald Trump to exempt his state from leasing. Even though Brown had a conversation with administration officials relaying California’s wish to be included in a similar exemption, no announcement has been made that would prevent drilling in federal waters off the coast.

But this is one issue where the state may get its way, thanks to current market forces and a stubborn regulatory blockade.

The oil and gas industries have shown little interest in exploring off the California coast, and the State Lands Commission has resolved to make it much more difficult and expensive for companies to get crude oil to land and into pipelines.

The commission’s policy to prevent construction of onshore infrastructure does nothing to stop drilling but could limit the volume of oil shipped at a time when the low price per barrel is already discouraging new exploration.

Given those financial and logistical headaches, companies may take a pass.

“A state like California is going to put its full force and resources on the line,” said Timothy O’Connor, a California-based attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund. “There’s still an element of local and state control, and we are going to defend our values to their very core. That’s certainly one of them.”


Rolling Back Air Rules

California has notched two victories over the Trump administration’s efforts to undo a methane regulation instituted during Obama’s term.

The Waste Prevention Rule was to have gone into effect in January 2017, regulating emissions of natural gas leaking from more than 100,000 oil and gas wells on public lands across the country.

The federal Interior Department delayed enactment of the rule and was sued by California and New Mexico. The states prevailed. The agency then suspended part of the new rule and the two states sued again, winning in court once more.

The victory has significant impact in California, home to vast, aging oil fields and energy infrastructure. Methane’s potent heat-trapping capacity makes it many times more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. The state Air Resources Board recently limited methane coming from both new and existing oil and gas sources.

Another win came in a suit the state joined after the EPA postponed implementation of yet another Obama-era rule aimed at combating smog. The “Ozone Rule” reduced allowable concentrations of ozone, a main component of smog.

Pruitt ordered the EPA to extend the deadline to comply with the new standards by at least a year. Two days after California and 15 other states filed suit, Pruitt reversed his decision.

The state also won a suit calling for federal transportation officials to monitor greenhouse-gas emissions along national highways, but the government is considering repealing the regulations.

In another pending case, California and other states are suing the EPA to identify areas of the country with the most polluted air. In April, Trump weighed in, directing the EPA to relax restrictions on state governments and businesses that have been key to cutting smog.

In a memo, the president instructed Pruitt to expedite a review of state smog-reduction plans and streamline the process for businesses to get air-quality-related permits. In addition, Trump ordered a review of other air-quality regulations related to public health to determine whether they “should be revised or rescinded.”

The agency said the directive was aimed at trimming costs and maximizing efficiency.


Dropping Protection for Water

In an effort to more precisely define which bodies of water are covered under federal law, the Obama administration adopted a rule in 2015 that effectively expanded the number of protected waterways, including springs and floodplains that appear for only part of the year.

The idea was to safeguard both water quality and water quantity, and to put an end to the time-consuming practice of determining status on a case-by-case basis. The U.S. Supreme Court had already weighed in, but the high court’s definitions of the “waters of the United States” failed to provide adequate clarification.

The Obama administration’s definition-stretching rules were strenuously opposed by developers, who said they swept up much of the undeveloped land in California, including wetlands.

Soon after Trump came into office, the EPA launched a review of the rule, and then got rid of it.

In February, California sued the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which signs off on development permits in protected wetlands.

The legal case is still pending, but Sivas said the Trump administration is doing an end-run by requiring the Army Corps to run all permit requests through Washington, rather than making those determinations in regional offices.

By centralizing the decision-making, Sivas said, political appointees can circumvent scientific and legal analysis performed by field offices and determine the outcome based on other factors.

“My guess is they are going to say (to developers), ‘You don’t need a permit,’” she said.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

Beyond the devastation and personal tragedy of the fires that have ravaged California in recent months, another disaster looms: an alarming uptick in unhealthy air—and the sudden release of the carbon dioxide that drives climate change.

As millions of acres burn in a cycle of longer and more-intense fire seasons, the extensive efforts of industry and regulators to protect the environment can be partly undone in one firestorm. In particular, as raging blazes pump more carbon into the atmosphere, state officials are grappling with the potential effect on California’s ability to adequately reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

The state’s environmental regulations are known to be stringent, but they have limits: They apply only to human-caused emissions. Pollution generated by wildfires is all outside the grasp of state law.

“The kinds of fires we’re seeing now generate millions of tons of GHG emissions. This is significant,” said Dave Clegern, a spokesman for the state Air Resources Board, a regulatory body.

In less than one week, for example, October’s wine-country fires discharged harmful emissions equal to that of every car, truck and big rig on the state’s roads in a year. The calculations from the subsequent fires in Southern California are not yet available, but given the duration and scope of the multiple blazes, they could well exceed that level.

The greenhouse gases released when forests burn not only do immediate harm, discharging carbon dioxide and other planet-warming gases; they also continue to inflict damage long after the fires are put out. In a state where emissions from nearly every industry are tightly regulated, if wildfires were treated like other carbon emitters, Mother Nature would be castigated, fined and shut down.

The air board estimates that between 2001 and 2010, wildfires generated approximately 120 million tons of carbon. But Clegern said a direct comparison with regulated emissions is difficult, in part because of limited monitoring data.

“Nature doesn’t follow the rules very well,” said Jim Branham, executive officer at the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, a state agency that has created a plan to better harness California’s forests in reducing carbon in the atmosphere.

As is so often the case in environmental catastrophes, one thing leads to another, creating what Branham calls the double whammy: Burning trees not only release powerful pollutants known as black carbon; once a forest is gone, its prodigious ability to absorb carbon from the atmosphere and store it is lost, too.

Scientists estimate that in severely burned areas, only a fraction of a scorched tree’s emissions are released during the fire, perhaps as little as 15 percent. The bulk of greenhouse gases are released over months and years as the plant dies and decomposes.

And if a burned-out forest is replaced by chaparral or brush, that landscape loses more than 90 percent of its capacity to take in and retain carbon, according to the conservancy.

Severe fires have the capacity to inflict profound damage in a short span. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that the 2013 Rim Fire in central California spewed out the equivalent of the carbon-dioxide emissions from 3 million cars. That is a setback to the state’s effort to get cars off the road, another critical tool for reducing greenhouse gases.

The role of wildfires as a major source of pollution was identified a decade ago, when a study conducted by the National Center for Atmospheric Research concluded that “a severe fire season lasting only one or two months can release as much carbon as the annual emissions from the entire transportation or energy sector of an individual state.”

It’s a measure of the dramatic ramping up of fires in the West that today, a single fire can meet that threshold.

The entire equation has been made worse by the state’s epidemic of tree death, caused by drought, disease and insect infestation. The U.S. Forest Service earlier this month updated its estimate of dead trees across California to 129 million. That loss alone could be a blow to the state’s vision of a low-carbon future.

“Dead trees don’t sequester carbon,” Branham said.

Forests as carbon-chewers are part of the state’s strategy for cutting greenhouse-gas emissions significantly by 2020 and beyond—a goal that could be undermined by nature’s caprice. The air board will direct state agencies to determine more precisely how much carbon can be absorbed by California’s variety of landscapes.

Air quality, too, is subject to state, local and federal regulations. But those standards go out the window in large fires, when soot and ash blanketing entire regions can be seen from space.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency, which sets air pollution standards nationally, has an “exceptional events” rule that exempts states from fines under certain extraordinary conditions.

California has invoked the rule during wildfires at least once before, in 2008, for fires in the Sacramento area. The request was accepted, according to the air board.

More recently, Sean Raffuse, an analyst at the Air Quality Research Center at the University of California at Davis, came up with the “back of the envelope” calculations for October’s Sonoma County fires.

Raffuse said he used federal emissions inventories from fires and calculated that five days of ashy spew from the northern California blazes equated to the annual air pollution from every vehicle in California.

Those kinds of computations are seldom replicated, largely for lack of the necessary instruments present at fire sites. But things are changing: Researchers have been attempting to better understand the full range of environmental damage wrought by wildfires. One tool is drones that can be flown through smoke plumes to collect samples for analysis.

“We don’t have the means to measure emissions from a wildfire like we do from a tailpipe,” Branham said. “We are lagging well behind in understanding and having hard data of the effects of these fires. And most of the data are chasing reality.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

A young lawyer for the Environmental Protection Agency had a heavy feeling as he headed to work one recent morning.

Like many EPA staffers, he’s been distraught over the steady stream of negative news about the Trump administration’s plans for his agency, and what it all means for his future. That morning the White House had released its budget proposal, calling on Congress to cut 31 percent of the EPA’s budget, more than 50 programs and 3,200 of the agency’s 15,000 employees.

The lawyer’s subway stop, the Federal Triangle Metro Station, dumps people out under a grand archway between two entrances to the EPA’s ornate limestone DC headquarters. As he went up the escalator, he encountered a small group of people standing in the cold wind, passing out fliers and holding signs that read: “Fight climate change; work for California.”

A man with a bushy gray mustache exclaimed: “I’m recruiting for California jobs!” and introduced himself to the EPA lawyer as Michael Picker, the president of California’s Public Utilities Commission, which regulates electric companies and other utilities.

Picker explained that he has 250 job openings—and more on the way. California’s Air Resources Board and Energy Commission also have opportunities for federal employees frustrated with the direction in which the Trump administration is headed.

“All the jobs will have impacts on climate change in some ways,” he said.

Picker’s recruitment drive is more than a publicity stunt: His agency is short-staffed already, and he’s steadily losing employees to retirement. He needs reinforcements to meet an enormous challenge in front of him. He needs to ensure that electric utilities make the investments necessary to generate enough clean energy to meet California’s ambitious climate change goals. (California is committed to getting 50 percent of its power from renewable energy by 2030.)

The EPA lawyer said his encounter with Picker last week lifted his spirits giving him a sense of “relief” and “hope.” He’d already considered seeking a job in California, where the state government has a strong commitment to environmental protection.

“There’s a pull and a push, especially with the budget coming out,” added the lawyer, who like other EPA staffers, didn’t want his name used for fear it would put his job in jeopardy.

This was just the kind of encounter that Picker hoped for when he decided to turn an already-planned trip to Washington, D.C., into a mini recruiting mission. His goal was to try to lure talented federal employees to California state government by promising them a chance to work someplace still committed to fighting climate change. He also spent a morning passing out fliers at the Energy Department. But he was especially happy with how things went outside EPA’s headquarters.

One EPA staffer ran inside and returned with a resume. An EPA engineer asked for extra fliers for his colleagues. Picker passed out business cards, offering to help the D.C. refugees navigate the cumbersome hiring process at California state agencies. “Thank you for offering to rescue us!” one EPA staffer bellowed as he walked past.

Picker’s challenge is bigger than getting companies to generate cleaner electricity. He also has to ensure they make investments to transform the electric grid to meet the challenges of all the additional renewable power that’s coming online.

The grid was designed as a centralized system where electricity was generated by relatively few large power plants. The grid now needs to get a lot smarter to manage many thousands of new sources of power, from large-scale solar and wind farms to solar panels on top of people’s homes. Cleaner electricity isn’t enough: California also wants to shift its vehicles to clean electricity: “That’s why we need people—to help build the infrastructure California needs to get greenhouse gases out of our economy. These tasks aren’t going to solve themselves.”

Despite all the rhetoric from the White House and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt about major plans to transform the agency and downplay climate change, there hasn’t yet been a big exodus. EPA employees are passionate about the mission of the agency, and so far, many staffers say they’re still doing their usual work.

“Because nothing drastic has changed yet at EPA, people don’t have immediate pressure to leave,” said another EPA staffer who spoke with Picker. “You saw people taking those fliers. So it’s not that people aren’t thinking about it.”

She said she thinks California is smart to try to lure away the EPA’s talented employees at a time when their current employer is making it clear their work isn’t valued. She will definitely consider moving to California for a job, she said.

Fundamental changes are on the way, given that Pruitt and President Donald Trump have vowed to undo the biggest efforts undertaken by the EPA during the Obama administration—regulations to slash greenhouse gas emissions from cars and power plants and protect wetlands and waterways. Trump took a big step today with an executive order undoing many Obama-era regulations. EPA staffers will now be charged with justifying the elimination of regulations that they or their colleagues spent years crafting.

None of the EPA staffers I spoke with were willing to have their names published.

“We’re all afraid now of retribution if we talk. It’s already started to happen,” said one staffer.

John O’Grady, president of a national council of EPA employee unions, said EPA employees are right to be cautious. “We all pretty much are aware we cannot speak out in the press; that would not be a very smart move on the part of an employee.”

As Picker was wrapping up for the morning, a bundled-up bike commuter rode up to ask about an application he’d already sent in. Picker promised to help and then took a photo with some volunteers who had showed up to help him pass out fliers. One was a corporate lawyer, another a former Energy Department official, and third a solar executive from Oregon who was in town for business.

“I’m disillusioned by Trump’s budget proposal,” said Tom Starrs, a vice president of SunPower Corporation. ”On the other hand, I’m inspired by California continuing to address climate change and by the support at every level of government in California. It’s a unified front on climate change. It’s wonderful to see.”

Correspondent Elizabeth Shogren writes for High Country News, where this story first appeared.

Published in Environment

Most weekdays, a long line of rail cars delivers thick slabs of steel to a factory in Fontana, about 40 miles east of Los Angeles, and 60 miles northwest of Palm Springs. Deep in the bowels of California Steel Industries, the slabs are toasted until they glow white-hot; they’re then rolled into thin sheets used to make shipping containers, metal roofing and car wheels.

The plant churns out more than 2 million tons of flat rolled steel each year, using enormous amounts of natural gas and electricity, and releasing more than 190,000 metric tons of climate-altering carbon dioxide annually. Now, California Steel and many other businesses have to pay for their carbon emissions under California's new cap-and-trade law, the first of its kind in the nation.

Last November, the company participated in the state's first auction of carbon allowances, purchasing an undisclosed number, each worth one metric ton of carbon dioxide and selling for $10.09. The online auction went fairly smoothly, says Brett Guge, executive vice president of finance and administration at the company. But for Guge, the long-term challenge is finding ways to meet California's ambitious greenhouse-gas reduction targets (down to 1990 levels by 2020) while remaining profitable.

The Golden State forged ahead with the carbon dioxide cap-and-trade program despite the U.S. Senate's 2010 failure to pass a national program. Given the state's history of implementing environmental regulations that later become national policy, a successful cap-and-trade system could serve as a federal model. If cap-and-trade in California "fails, or is perceived to have failed, then that could be the nail in the coffin for cap-and-trade consideration as a policy instrument in Washington," says Robert Stavins, a Harvard professor who studies climate policy.

While its overall impact on U.S. emissions won't be major, the California experiment makes several improvements to existing cap-and-trade strategies. It covers more sources of pollution than the 5-year-old Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the Northeastern U.S., which applies only to power plants. The European Union started the world's largest carbon cap-and-trade program in 2005, but it had a significant flaw: The initial stage of the program gave away too many free credits, resulting in some power companies raking in windfall profits by raising electricity prices, even though they didn't have to pay for their allowances. It also contributed to low prices for carbon allowances, which provides scant incentive to cut emissions.

Mary Nichols, chairman of the California Air Resources Board, the agency steering the state program, is confident that California's effort will be different. The program covers 360 businesses, which represent about 600 facilities that each release more than 25,000 metric tons yearly—enough to put a big dent in California's total carbon output. The EU's difficulty, Nichols notes, was that authorities didn't have an accurate measure of the total quantity of emissions initially. California, though, has had a greenhouse-gas reporting requirement in place since 2008.

"We knew (what polluters) were actually putting into the atmosphere," says Nichols. "That gave us the assurance that if we started a (cap-and-trade) program … we would be able to implement it in a way that would not cause the kinds of problems that occurred in Europe."

Fraud could be another obstacle, but experts agree the state is equipped to keep that to a minimum. The Air Resources Board uses third-party verifiers to check reported emissions, and has a system to track allowances and prove their authenticity. Companies that fail to supply enough credits to cover their emissions are fined by having to purchase four times the number of outstanding allowances. While not flawless, the program is unlikely to suffer from market manipulation and fraud, according to an analysis by the University of California at Los Angeles.

But even if the cap-and-trade system works as intended, its economic impacts are a big unknown. Because of its many regulations, high electricity rates and taxes, California is already a costly place to do business.

Guge is worried there won't be a feasible way to reduce the carbon dioxide output of his company's gas-powered furnaces, which account for 75 percent of the plant's total releases. Without reductions, his company will have to pay for more allowances as the cap tightens, but it's reluctant to pass those increased costs on to customers, because that might put it at a competitive disadvantage.

Proponents of cap-and-trade hope the system will drive innovations, with new companies popping up to provide emissions-curbing breakthroughs. In late January, the Sacramento-based firm Clean Tech Advocates launched to do just that. It works to help clean tech developers get state funding, generated from the carbon-credit auctions, for their projects, and its consultants help companies reduce emissions. Founder Patrick Leathers says that, over time, the auctions will bring in "billions of dollars," which will boost the state's clean tech industry and result in carbon-cutting solutions for companies dealing with cap-and-trade.

Environmentalists—and businesses—are hoping he's right.

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment