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Veiled threats from Trump ‘are par for the course,’ says California AG

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, seen here at a press conference in Sacramento, Calif., on Jan. 18, 2018, warned Tuesday that his state will not be intimated by threats from EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to intervene if California doesn’t agree to a “national” standard for vehicle emissions.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, seen here at a press conference in Sacramento, Calif., on Jan. 18, 2018, warned Tuesday that his state will not be intimated by threats from EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to intervene if California doesn’t agree to a “national” standard for vehicle emissions. rbyer@sacbee.com

California Attorney Gen. Xavier Becerra confirmed Tuesday that talks are ongoing with President Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency on creating a “national” vehicle emissions standard, as opposed to differing standards in California and other states.

But Becerra said his state won’t be cowed into compromising, and lowering its standards, amid veiled threats by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to intervene if California doesn’t strike a deal.

“Veiled threats are par for the course for California with this administration,” said Becerra in response to a question by McClatchy at the National Association of Attorneys General winter meeting. “At the end of the day, they can threaten, but what they can do under the law is something else.”

California has long held federal authority to set pollution standards stronger than what the EPA adopts. And since the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, no president has challenged that authority. But in recent testimony to a Senate committee, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt left open the possibility he might seek to revoke California’s status as anti-pollution trailblazer.

“Federalism doesn’t mean that one state can dictate to the rest of the country,” Pruitt told the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee. He then added that “we recognize California’s special status in the statute and we are working with them to find consensus around these issues.”

California was ahead of the rest of the country in adopting vehicle emission standards aimed at reducing greenhouse gases, with the side benefit of reducing other pollutants. The EPA granted the state a waiver in 2013 to establish the rules, which have since been adopted by 13 other states, including New York, Pennsylvania and Washington.

The auto industry has long opposed the vehicle fleet standards, arguing they are too challenging to implement as consumers continue to demand and purchase gas-guzzling SUVs and trucks. The industry also opposes the idea of California and 13 states having standards different than the rest of the nation, and have lobbied the Trump administration to broker a deal with California on a unified set of rules.

Becerra said the talks are “ongoing” but declined to go into detail. “We feel very strongly about the standards. They have been proven effective and have been adopted nationwide,” he said. “The conversation should be one that leads to continued progress on (reducing) emissions.”

There is not much time for the two sides to negotiate. The EPA plans to decide on future tailpipe emission standards by April 1, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will reveal its new federal fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks by March 30.

At the same time, California is fighting the Trump administration on multiple environmental fronts. At a public hearing Wednesday in San Francisco, Becerra’s office will testify against the administration’s plan to repeal the Clean Power Plan, President Obama’s key effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and other sources.

Last Friday, California and New Mexico obtained a preliminary injunction against plans by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to make it easier for oil and gas operations on federal land to vent methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

The California Air Resources Board is also bucking the EPA by enacting new regulations on retrofitted big rig trucks, known as “gliders,” which Pruitt wants to free from federal pollution restrictions.

At this week’s meeting of the National Association of Attorneys General, a group of AGs released a report detailing some 80 legal actions they have taken against the Trump administration and environmental protection and other issues.

Maura Healey, the attorney general of Massachusetts, said the administration often trips up its efforts to repeal environmental rules by failing to follow established administrative and legal procedures.

“If you look at the scoreboard so far and the actions we have taken against this administration, time and time and time again they blow it,” said Healey.

But not all lawsuits filed by state attorneys general have been successful. On Tuesday, a U.S. District Court judge in San Diego rejected arguments by Becerra and environmental groups that Trump lacked the authority to waive environmental laws for construction of a border wall.

The judge, Gonzalo Curiel, was the same judge Trump berated on the campaign trail for his handling of lawsuits involving Trump University.

In a statement, Becerra said he was weighing whether to appeal the decision by Curiel, whom he defended in 2016 amid Trump’s tirades.

“A medieval wall along the U.S.-Mexico border simply does not belong in the 21st century,” he said.

Stuart Leavenworth: 202-383-6070, @sleavenworth

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