Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt rolled along on Monday with another rule rollback — this time to automobile emissions standards. The fuel efficiency rules were a key part of the Obama administration's plan to tackle climate change, and Pruitt's proposal to rewrite them is one of the clearest challenges yet to California's defiance of Trump-era environmental rules.
For decades, long before Trump took office, the EPA allowed California to set stricter vehicle emissions standards than the federal government. The state has authority under the Clean Air Act, the nation's main air-pollution legislation, to set its own emissions limits in order to tackle its smog-choked cities when the law was first crafted in the 1960s.
But the auto industry has long thought the Golden State's tailpipe requirements are too stiff, and lobbied the Trump administration for a change. Gloria Bergquist, a vice president at the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said in a statement that the group's members support “a single national program.”
On Monday, Pruitt announced the EPA would revoke Obama-era standards requiring new cars and light trucks to average more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025. Pruitt did not specify what limits would be put in place instead.
Easing federal standards by any degree, however, does not amount to much if California does not do so, as well. As the most populous state, California consumers carry too much economic clout for automakers to ignore. And 12 other states, representing more than a third of the country’s auto market, follow California’s standards. That means auto manufactures need to either make cars that conform to California's standards or roll out two lineups for different states.
The EPA announcement also represents a new stage in a contentious legal and political battle between the federal government and California during the Trump administration. Despite being an outspoken advocate of states' rights when suing the Obama administration as Oklahoma's attorney general, Pruitt was not pleased with the discretion California had in crafting its own air-quality measures.
“Cooperative federalism doesn't mean that one state can dictate standards for the rest of the country,” Pruitt said in a statement Monday.
Xavier Becerra, the attorney general of California, shot back by hinting at the legal battle to come.
“My team is currently reviewing the EPA’s determination and working closely with the California Air Resources Board,” Becerra said in a statement. “We’re ready to file suit if needed to protect these critical standards and to fight the Administration’s war on our environment. California didn’t become the sixth largest economy in the world by spectating.”
California has not held back from suing the Trump administration over new health care, immigration and other policies, but Becerra has had the best luck so far on the environmental front. Of the state's 14 legal victories against the Trump administration to date, nine involved environmental issues, according to Becerra spokeswoman Sarah Lovenheim.
Lawsuits can crack the other way, too. The Justice Department announced Monday it has filed a lawsuit over a state law aiming to allow California the right to prohibit the sale of federal land. The lawsuit claims the law is unconstitutional because it blocks Congress’s ability to control the sale of federal property.
“California was admitted to the Union upon the express condition that it would never interfere with the disposal of federal law. And yet, once again, the California legislature has enacted an extreme state law attempting to frustrate federal policy,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement. The state law was an attempt to preempt the Trump administration from potentially selling land state officials waned to keep for conservation.
The fuel efficiency rollback is also poised to hurt the bottom line of electric car manufacturers such as Tesla, which is based in Palo Alto, that sell credits to other automakers less capable of complying with the rules.
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— Meanwhile, Pruitt's troubles in Washington are gathering steam following revelations that he rented a condo for just $50 a night from the wife of a fossil-fuel lobbyist. The administrator is considered one of Trump's more capable Cabinet members, but there are definitely whispers (or loud talk, see Chris Christie) suggesting the EPA chief might be on the ropes, especially with Trump in the mood for a shakeup.
- The White House is probing Pruitt following news of his rental arrangement, first reported late last week by ABC News and Bloomberg News. According to the Wall Street Journal, the review is meant to “dig a little deeper” into Pruitt’s accommodations, as the White House is unsatisfied with the EPA’s statement last week that Pruitt did not violate any ethics rules by paying significantly below market value for his room. “While there is no sign yet that Mr. Pruitt’s job is in jeopardy, another White House official said that few people are coming to Mr. Pruitt’s defense,” the Journal reports.
- But a story in Politico suggests a more precarious situation. White House chief of staff John Kelly has considered firing Pruitt “in the coming months as part of a wave of ousters of top officials causing headaches for the president." Kelly is waiting for the results of an upcoming inspector general’s report into his travel costs.
- The New York Times reports the EPA signed off on an expansion plan for a pipeline owned by a Canadian energy company linked to Pruitt's landlord. “'Any attempt to draw that link is patently false," Liz Bowman, a spokeswoman for Mr. Pruitt, said in a written statement.
- Some experts told ABC News on Monday "they had serious reservations about the reasoning behind the final internal [EPA] ethics ruling … and said in interviews they agree with several Democratic members of Congress who have called for a more in-depth review.”
- Another likely point of concern is that the townhouse in which Pruitt rented a room "also served as a hub for Republican lawmakers hoping to raise money for their congressional campaigns," the Daily Beast reports.
- The revelation of Pruitt's rental situation renewed calls for him to leave office. In a statement, Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) writes: "Pruitt must resign. If he refuses to do so he should be fired immediately.” And in a piece titled "The EPA's Scott Pruitt has to go," the Los Angeles Times’s editorial board writes: "It's not so much that he's a small-time abuser of the public trust living the high life with taxpayer dollars. The bigger issue is that when he's not flying luxuriously around the world, he's single-handedly imperiling the Earth by dismantling the EPA." And The Post's own editorial board writes "Mr. Pruitt’s tenure as the nation’s top environmental enforcer, though brief, has already been far too long."
- Why does the condo story have sticking power? The Post’s Aaron Blake explains that the EPA administrator's rental agreement is “pretty swampy,” even compared with the litany of questionable pricey travel arrangements made by Trump’s Cabinet officials. “Regardless of the size of Pruitt’s room, paying about $1,000 per month to live on Capitol Hill is a deal that is basically impossible to beat — if not unheard-of,” Blake wrote. He noted that Pruitt was under fire for dozens of first-class flights. “But it’s one thing to spend taxpayer money unwisely; it’s another to create the impression of a potentially serious conflict of interest that could impact regulations that account for billions of dollars.”
- Pruitt's travel costs could have been even higher. Last year, Pruitt's aides considered leasing a private jet on a month-to-month basis to accommodate his travel needs, current and former agency officials told The Post's Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis. The EPA ultimately did not move forward with the plan because it would have been too expensive.
- Another brewing matter: The Atlantic is reporting Pruitt granted salary raises of $28,130 and $56,765 to two staffers using a little-known legal loophole, even after the White House "declined to approve the raises" initially.
— Americans tell Trump administration to take a hike over proposed national park fee increase: The Interior Department is backing away from a proposal to significantly increase entrance fees for popular national parks nationwide after more than 100,000 public comments “nearly unanimously opposed to the idea,” The Post’s Darryl Fears reports. In October, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had proposed a peak-season price hike from $25 to $70 at 17 parks. “An Interior official familiar with the changes now being discussed said some type of increase remains almost certain but that the dramatic hike is being reconsidered for fear that it would cause visitation to plunge,” Fears writes, “reducing sorely needed revenue at top destinations."
— More questions about Zinke’s former PAC: The Federal Election Commission is probing more than $600,000 of previously unreported contributions from the first six months of 2017 to the political action committee previously linked with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Politico reports. Zinke launched SEAL PAC when he was elected in 2014 and cut ties with the group after he joined the Trump administration. It’s the second time federal regulators have raised questions about the PAC during the time it was overseen by Vincent DeVito, who is now a top adviser in Zinke’s Interior Department, per the report.
— Climate change, scrubbed: National Park Service officials have removed any mention of the human contribution to climate change in the draft of a much-anticipated report on sea level rise, per the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal News. Based on analysis of 18 versions of the scientific report, officials removed the word “anthropogenic” and “human activities” from multiple places.
— Old Interior nominee is new Interior nominee: Susan Combs, a former Texas comptroller and agricultural commissioner, has been tapped to serve as the acting assistant secretary of the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Austin American Statesman reports. The move comes as she waits Senate confirmation for another administration role that appears to be stalled in the Senate. In July, President Trump nominated Combs for the role of assistant secretary of the Interior Department for policy, management and budget. According to a previous investigation from the American-Statesman, Combs “regularly found fault with proposals from Washington to list species as endangered, variously citing inadequate science, low-ball economic impact projections or insufficient notification of local residents. During a 2013 legislative briefing she referred to proposed listings as ‘incoming Scud missiles.’"
— From DOE to FERC: Travis Fisher, a key figure who oversaw the Department of Energy's grid study, is heading to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Fisher, who previously served as a senior adviser at the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, will be an adviser in the office of FERC chairman Kevin McIntyre, E&E News reported.
— Scientists find an alarming 10 percent of Antarctica’s coastal glaciers are now in retreat: There are “extreme” changes underway for eight of the major glaciers in Antarctica, according to a new analysis of satellite data. Unusually warm ocean water is slipping under ice shelves and “eating away at the glaciers' icy grasp on the seafloor. As a result, the grounding line—where the ice last touches bedrock—has been receding by as much as 600 feet per year,” reports InsideClimate News. The Post’s Chris Mooney writes “the more glaciers are retreating, the more one worries about sea-level rise. Retreating grounding lines can expose more ice to the ocean, allowing it to flow outward more rapidly.”
— What? We worry? Americans’ concerns about energy are at or near their lowest levels in at least two decades, according to a new Gallup poll. After several years of low gasoline prices, the survey found only 25 percent of Americans say they worry a “great deal” about the availability or affordability of energy. That is down two points from the same poll last year, and is the lowest rate in 18 years of Gallup polls. The poll also found only 25 percent of Americans say the energy situation in the country is “very serious,” which is “similar to the readings since 2015 but on the lower end of what Gallup has measured in polls dating to the late 1970s,” according to the pollster.
— Oil lobby chief heads to Mormon Church post: Jack Gerard, the longtime head of the American Petroleum Institute, announced over the weekend he will be joining the senior leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after he departs from the oil and natural gas lobbying group this coming August. "Many of you are well aware how important my family and my faith are to me and I'm grateful that the course of my life has allowed me to complete my career serving both my family and my faith in this assignment," Gerard wrote in an email to API staffers. The powerful industry group has yet to name his successor.
— Import impasse: Chinese imports of U.S. ethanol will be cut in the short term following China’s announcement that it will slap an extra 15 percent tariff in response to Trump placing a levy on imported aluminum and steel. But Reuters reports according to industry analysts, Chinese buyers of ethanol “eventually will have to return to the overseas market to meet government targets for using the fuel.”
— World Bank predicts coal use will drastically decline in the next 30 years: "The model has been coal plus renewables, the model can be gas plus renewables. I think 10, 12 years from now, we will see renewables and storage and nothing more than that," Riccardo Puliti, the World Bank's global head of energy and extractives, told CNBC.
- The Global America Business Institute holds a forum on national security implications of U.S. commercial nuclear industry on Wednesday.
- Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy holds a discussion on digital technologies and energy on Wednesday.
- The Environmental and Energy Study Institute and Agricultural Energy Coalition holds a briefing on the farm bill’s energy title on Wednesday.
- The Women’s Council on Energy and the Environment forum on women on energy and environment boards is on Thursday.
- The Nuclear Regulatory Commission meeting with advisory committee on reactor safeguards will be on Thursday.
- The National Capital Region Water Resources Symposium will be held on Friday.
- The Stimson Center and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences holds a seminar on nuclear waste solutions on Friday.
— Thousands celebrated the 140th Easter Egg Roll on the White House's South Lawn on Monday: Among the dignitaries in attendance were the Easter Bunny, the Cat in the Hat and Energy Secretary Rick Perry.