THE LIGHTBULB

Rep. Doris Matsui asked Environment Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt point-blank last week whether he had plans to revoke the waiver the Obama administration granted to California to set its own auto emissions limits. 

“Not at present,” Pruitt assured the California Democrat during his high-profile testimony on Capitol Hill on Thursday. “In fact, we’ve worked very closely with California officials on that issue.”

However, it turns out the EPA's partner in setting national auto emissions standards was quietly drafting a proposal that would challenge California’s ability to set its own fuel-efficiency rules.

On Friday, just one day after Pruitt's back-to-back Hill hearings, The Washington Post reported on a not-yet-final document from the Transportation Department’s National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) that suggests the Trump administration is poised to make significant changes to auto standards over the next decade.

Ever since California has been able to use the 2009 waiver under the Clean Air Act to set higher standards for what comes out of cars' tailpipes, automakers have built more fuel-efficient automobiles to maintain access to California's massive market. Withdrawing the waiver would hobble yet another of President Barack Obama's efforts to curb climate change.

One "preferred" option outlined in the Trump administration's plan would freeze fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks at levels now set for vehicles to be manufactured for the model year 2021. That proposal would keep emissions in place through 2026, instead of ratcheting them up like the Obama administration wanted to do.

The draft offers seven options that would also weaken the standards, though not to the same extent as the preferred alternative. A federal official who has reviewed the document described it in detail to The Post. The EPA has not signed off on the draft, and the plan has not yet been sent to the White House for review. 

While famous for its car culture, California is at the same time one of the nation’s most progressive states on climate change and air pollution. Under a 2011 agreement reached among the Obama administration, automakers and the state of California, manufacturers’ fleet of cars and light trucks in the United States are slated to average more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025 — well above the level of the Trump administration’s proposed freeze.

If finalized, the Trump administration’s proposal would set up a major conflict with the nation's largest car-buying state. The Trump administration document asserts that, despite the Clean Air Act waiver, a separate federal law preempts California from drafting its own emissions standards.

This month, Pruitt announced he would revoke the Obama-era standards. Pruitt concluded they were “not appropriate” in light of new information, including automakers’ input that consumer demand for sport-utility vehicles and pickup trucks far outweighs interest in electric and other low-emission vehicles. The agency did not specify what would take their place and said Pruitt was still considering the status of California's waiver.

The EPA administrator has publicly suggested he is unhappy with California’s more stringent auto standards, even while in other instances he has argued that states should have more discretion in crafting environmental rules. “Federalism doesn’t mean that one state can dictate to the rest of the country,” Pruitt told members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in January.

California’s top prosecutor hinted Friday that the state may challenge the potential new auto standards in court. “The Trump Administration’s plan would rob Americans at the gas pump and risk our children’s health by polluting the air we breathe,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D) said in a statement. “We’ll closely monitor any developments and I’m ready to take any and all action necessary to defend our progress.”

Meanwhile, Stanley Young, a spokesman for the California Air Resources Board, took exception to Pruitt's characterization that the EPA was working "very closely" with the state's air agency. "Pruitt himself has never met with anyone from CARB -- even when he was in California in March," Young wrote in an email. He added that EPA and CARB officials have had three "nonsubstantive” meetings over the past four months.

“This is not, by any stretch of the definition, 'working with California,' " Young said.

What's at stake: Current standards were set to avert 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles sold between 2012 and 2025, according to the EPA. Since the rules were issued, the transportation sector has outstripped electric power to become the top source of greenhouse-gas emissions in the United States. Some automakers such as Ford and Honda have publicly cautioned against a rollback of the national tailpipe limits.  

Nevertheless, automaker advocacy groups have asked the Trump administration to revisit the standards.

There are still a lot of ifs to sort out. The draft, or any other proposal, would be subject to public comment before being finalized. And environmental and Democratic groups could delay any changes through a protracted court battle.

NHTSA officials on Friday stressed in an emailed statement to The Post that the plan was not final, promising the upcoming review process would be “public, robust, and transparent.”

“NHTSA and EPA continue to work together on Corporate Average Fuel Economy and tailpipe standards for future model year passenger cars and light trucks. NHTSA’s top priority is safety and this Administration must also consider economic practicability when setting these Standards,” they wrote. “The agencies intend to take comment on a broad range of options. Given that the work is ongoing, at this time there is nothing to announce until a proposal is actually released.”

The EPA struck the same note of cooperation too. “The Agency is continuing to work with NHTSA to develop a joint proposed rule and is looking forward to the interagency process,” EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said in an email.

POWER PLAYS

— Fallout from Thursday's hearings: Pruitt signed a memo on Friday to authorize three top agency officials to review expenditures made on his behalf that cost more than $5,000, a move that appears to show Pruitt’s willingness to place a check on the kinds of expenses that sparked recent criticism.

“It is my priority to ensure that all expenditures incurred in support of my duties reflect my judgment and demonstrate good stewardship of taxpayer dollars,” he wrote in the memo about the announcement made the day after he was grilled in two hearings on his spending actions, per USA Today.

The three officials are Pruitt’s Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson, EPA Deputy Administrator Andrew Wheeler and Chief Financial Officer Holly Greaves, who were all appointed by Pruitt or by President Trump.

— Elsewhere at the agency, Pruitt “further enraged and demoralized Environmental Protection Agency staff,” Politico reported. Current and former EPA officials, as well as others close to the agency, told the publication that Pruitt’s strategy of blaming other EPA officials for granting raises to favored aides, and other issues, threw the rest of the agency under the bus even if it may have impressed President Trump.  "It shows a real lack of leadership that he did not defend, or blamed, his staff. These are the people that he's asking for loyalty from," one person close to the administration told Politico. "These are the people that are defending him. He's not returning the favor. That's not leadership.”

— But the probes continue at the EPA’s internal watchdog... The EPA's inspector general confirmed last week it will investigate Pruitt’s controversial condo deal, The Post’s Brady Dennis reported. It’s the 10th federal investigation into the administrator. In a letter to Democratic Reps. Don Beyer (Va.) and Ted Lieu (Calif.), who requested the review, inspector general Arthur A. Elkins Jr. said the office had “received multiple requests from multiple members of Congress as well as other OIG Hotline complaints regarding these same and related issues. After considering the [requests]… the OIG has concluded that it will review the matters enumerated above.” Elkins noted some of the issues will be reviewed as part of ongoing inspector general’s reviews, and others will prompt new reviews.

...and with Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) too: The chairman of the House Oversight Committee told CBS's "Face the Nation" Sunday that his panel's investigation of Pruitt is on track. "We got documents Friday," he said. "We are scheduling witness interviews."

— Steel tariffs given more time to harden: The deadline for steel and aluminum tariff exemptions for allies of the United States, initially set for Tuesday, will be extended, per CNBC. “The extensions may vary in length for each country, based on the progress made in talks on this and other trade issues,” per the report. “For instance, Canada and Mexico would be granted an extension because they have made progress on steel and aluminum issues in NAFTA talks, which resume late next week. It's unclear where talks with Brazil, Australia and Argentina stand.”

— In the storm’s aftermath, talk of independence: Seven months after Hurricane Maria, power is still not completely restored in Puerto Rico. And the humanitarian crisis left behind by the storm has “added fuel to an ongoing power struggle for the island’s future,” The Post’s Arelis R. Hernández reports. Its current leader, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, and his New Progressive Party advocate statehood as the solution to Puerto Rico’s ­second-class status while the Popular Democratic Party supports remaining a commonwealth, but with more autonomy from the United States. Meanwhile, the U.S. government under GOP control shows little interest in affecting the status quo.

—The Interior Department won't restore federal protections for grizzly bears near Yellowstone National Park, a decision that ignores a federal appeals court ruling that called on the department to consider a species’ habitat loss in their recovery process. Interior officials said Friday they disagreed with the findings of the case. “Conservation groups and Native American Indian tribes... argue that killing grizzly bears would diminish the chances of Yellowstone's bears re-populating other areas where grizzlies once roamed, reports the Associated Press.

— Proposed shake-up at the National Park Service could make senior leaders hit the road: A potential reassignment of senior Park Service leaders, not yet finalized, could force longtime career employees to move across the country, The Post reported Friday. Among the top employees potentially reassigned is Bert Frost, who runs the Alaska regional office and who is a witness in an inspector-general investigation of P. Daniel Smith, currently the top-ranking Park Service official, who allegedly made a vulgar gesture in a hallway at Interior headquarters this January. The transfers would come just days after the Interior's inspector general found that officials failed to explain why they shuffled 35 top department employees last June.

THERMOMETER

— “There is nothing to indicate that any sort of volcanic eruption is imminent": The Steamboat Geyser at Yellowstone National Park has erupted three times in the last six weeks, The Post’s Alex Horton reports, in an “unusual pattern that hasn’t occurred since 2003.” That spike in activity has puzzled scientists who closely monitor Yellowstone, which rests on top of a supervolcano that is still alive and could someday erupt catastrophically. “Though scientists say the reasons for the eruptions are unclear, officials at the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory cautioned that the geyser activity is not a sign of impending doom.”

OIL CHECK

— Saudi Aramco watch: The state-run Saudi Arabian oil company announced Sunday it had appointed a woman as one of the five new members of its board, a milestone for both Saudi Arabia and the industry, which has few women executives. Lynn Laverty Elsenhans, who was appointed to the board, was the former chairwoman, president and chief executive of U.S.-based refiner Sunoco from 2008 to 2012. The state-run company is planning for an initial public offering for later this year or early 2019, Reuters reports.

— Lobbyist leaving: The head of the American Chemistry Council, Cal Dooley, announced he would step down from the group that lobbies on behalf of chemical and plastics manufacturers. “I am extremely proud of what ACC has accomplished over the past ten years, especially the passage of bipartisan chemical regulatory reform legislation,” Cal Dooley said in a statement Thursday. The American Chemistry Council, which Dooley has led for the past decade, spent $7.5 million on lobbying last year, per the Hill, with more than $9 million in annual advocacy spending in the six years before that.

DAYBOOK

Today

  • The Milken Institute’s 2018 Global Conference continues.
  • Collision's planet:tech Conference begins today.
  • The Offshore Technology Conference begins today.
  • The National Hydropower Association’s Waterpower Week begins.

Coming Up

  • Greentech Media’s Solar Summit begins on Tuesday.
  • The Center or Strategic and International Studies holds an event on an update on carbon pricing on Tuesday.
  • The Atlantic Council holds an event on Russia’s Energy Strategy on Wednesday.
  • The Great Plains Institute & Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions holds a workshop on Wednesday.
  • The Heritage Foundation holds an event on the Iran Nuclear Agreement on Thursday.
  • The Wilderness Society holds an event on climate change and U.S. Public Lands on Thursday.
EXTRA MILEAGE

— This is not what it looks like: The photograph above — seemingly of a giant anteater taking a late-night snack from a termite mounds with bioluminescent click beetle larvae acting as nightlights — earned Marcio Cabral the British Natural History Museum's Wildlife Photographer of the Year award in 2017. Until, that is, a few anonymous third parties notified contest organizers that something was amiss. The museum determined the anteater was taxidermied.