State environmentalists dread thought of losing fed emissions waivers

California officials have discerned a chilling signal that the Trump administration may be willing to halt the state’s unique authority to impose its own vehicle emission rules—a move that could undercut its pioneering effort to battle climate change.

The threat arose during the confirmation hearing for Scott Pruitt, Trump’s choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt was asked by California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris if he would pledge to continue the EPA’s decades-long policy of granting California waivers from the federal Clean Air Act, giving the state the right to set its own more stringent clean air standards. Pruitt—who as Oklahoma’s attorney general sued the EPA more than a dozen times—refused to commit to continuing California’s authority, instead saying he would have to study the issue.

The waivers have been the bedrock on which much of California’s climate change goals stand. The state’s emissions from passenger cars and light trucks have been reduced by more than 30 percent since 2009, when California expanded its use of the air quality waiver to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

The ability of the state to chart its own course has brought California to a place of national and international leadership in combating climate change, often without the partnership of recalcitrant elected officials in Washington. In many cases, California’s regulations have become the de facto federal standards.

Fran Pavley, the recently retired Democratic state senator who authored most of California’s climate change legislation, said in an interview that the state would “absolutely not” have been able to achieve the current greenhouse gas reductions without waivers. Losing that flexibility under the Trump administration would be a crushing blow to more than a decade of carefully crafted policies, which stitched together across multiple state and local agencies, aim to reduce California’s carbon footprint and dramatically reshape how the state generates and uses energy.

The clean air waivers also play a critical role in improving public health across California—and although they’ve helped clean pollutants from the air, large parts of the state still have air quality that violates federal ozone thresholds.

“There is no way that the 10 million Californians living in areas with smoggy air will be able to breathe healthy air without the state keeping (waiver) authority,” said Bill Magavern, policy director for the Coalition for Clean Air. Read the full CALmatters story:

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