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Days After Attacking California's Efforts to Reduce Emissions, Trump EPA Threatens State's Federal Funding Over Poor Air Quality

Under the Trump administration, one critic said, the EPA "is now just a political tool."

Traffic moves through an interchange along Interstate 580 on July 25, 2019 in Oakland, California. The Trump administration said Tuesday it would withhold highway funds from the state due to its high levels of air pollution—despite the fact that the EPA has also blocked California from setting higher emissions standards than the federal government. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Days after it moved to rescind California's ability to strictly regulate vehicle emissions, the Trump administration threatened the state's federal funding over its high levels of air pollution.

EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler sent a letter (pdf) to state Air Resources Board chair Mary Nichols on Tuesday saying the state could have federal highway funds withdrawn if it does not "dramatically reduce" its backlog of incomplete plans to address air pollution, saying California has "failed to carry out its most basic tasks under the Clean Air Act" and leaving it with "the worst air quality in the United States."

"The White House has no interest in helping California comply with the Clean Air Act to improve the health and well-being of Californians. This letter is a threat of pure retaliation." —Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-Calif.)Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom was stunned by the administration's suggestion that the state has neglected to reduce its air pollution, considering President Donald Trump has spent months attacking the state for its strict emissions standards.

"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 Tuesday. "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."

Wheeler's letter highlighted 82 areas in California which do not meet federal standards for air pollution, threatening public health for 34 million people who live in those regions.

But critics pointed to measures the state has adopted to protect the health of Californians under the Trump administration, which wants to roll back Obama-era federal regulations requiring automakers to drastically increase the fuel economy of vehicles by 2025 and end requirements for automakers to manufacture more hybrid and electric cars.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) published a timeline of the Trump administration's attacks on air quality, including requiring scientists to consider non-scientific information when advising on implementation of National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS); dissolving the Particulate Matter Review Panel, which had advised on air pollution reduction for decades; and replacing Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) members with a group led by an industry consultant.

"The chutzpah here is really something else," tweeted Ari Zevin, an attorney at the Institute for Policy Integrity, noting that the state emission standards the administration attacked last week are a key component of the state's plan to meet NAAQS.

Under Trump, another critic tweeted, the EPA "is now just a political tool."

Some political observers have posited that the administration's ongoing attacks on California are rooted in Trump's anger over California's status as a blue state, whose 55 electoral votes went to Hillary Clinton in 2016 and are likely to go to Trump's opponent in 2020. The state is a leader in resisting the president's agenda, with a number of California cities refusing to cooperate with Trump's hardline anti-immigration policies as well as rejecting the president's anti-climate regulatory rollback.

As Common Dreams reported on September 20, California was joined by 20 other states last week in filing a lawsuit against the administration for "attacking the authority of California and other states to tackle air pollution and protect public health."

If Trump's rollback prevails, Nichols said last week, "millions of people in California will breathe dirty air. There will be more pollution, more asthma, more hospitalizations, more premature deaths."

The state also signed a deal with four automakers over the summer, with the companies agreeing to adhere to California's mandate ordering them to manufacture fuel-efficient cars.

The administration's "complete denialism about climate change," Newsom said when the deal was finalized in July, has left Trump "hellbent on rolling [California's standards] back."

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