"We don't have a war with California," Wheeler said in an interview with The Energy 202.
Wheeler said his agency is compelled to prod the state since it is not moving quickly enough to address pollution within its own borders. In general, Wheeler suggested California took its eye off other environmental concerns to tackle an issue outside its control — climate change — that is caused by the buildup of greenhouse gas emissions mostly from elsewhere around the globe.
"I would say that California has been focused on climate change to the detriment of the other environmental programs," Wheeler said in a nearly hour-long interview in his office at EPA headquarters on Wednesday.
Gavin Newsom (D), California's governor who took office last January and served as San Francisco's mayor from 2004 to 2011, took issue with the idea that his state was not doing enough to protect its environment, arguing the Trump administration has tried to undermine its ability to do so.
“Let’s face facts. The most pro-polluter White House in U.S history continually targets California because, by any measure of the scoreboard, we are beating them," Newsom said in a statement. "Despite the president abusing the power of his office to punish his political opponents, California has successfully fended off the Trump Administration’s attacks on our environment — and we continue to assert our climate leadership on the world stage. That has got to inflame the President and Administrator Wheeler.”
The skirmish — let's not call it a war — between President Trump and California touched off when the administration tried to freeze fuel-efficiency standards for new vehicles through 2026. The move would undo tighter mileage rules issued under Barack Obama in consultation with California, which under the Clear Air Act is the only state in the union able to write its own rules for auto emissions.
The Obama-era car standards were one of the main ways that administration sought to rein in emissions from the transportation sector, which recently surpassed power generation as the primary greenhouse gas contributor in the United States.
That same month, Wheeler went on to write a letter to Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board, suggesting the federal government may withhold highway funding for the state for failing to "carry out its most basic tasks under the Clean Air Act." The federal government has the power to withhold money for highways if it determines a state is not taking certain steps to cut air pollution.
In the interview, Wheeler said California only received that letter because it had more “state implementation plans,” which serve as blueprints for how state agencies tackle smog-forming ozone and other pollutants, awaiting federal approval than any other state.
"This was a priority that began with this administration trying to get rid the backlog," Wheeler said. "This is not a backlog created during this administration. This is what we inherited. So they've been sitting at the agency for years."
Responding in her own letter in October, Nichols said the threat of sanctioning California "is at best unfounded" since the state "has been working diligently for decades to protect its residents" from pollution. Her office is working with the EPA's regional staff to have about 30 state implementation plans withdrawn.
Wheeler said in the interview he is not singling out California in his effort to tackle the backlog of anti-pollution plans. Twenty other states and the District of Columbia received similar written warnings.
In speeches and on social media, Trump has inveighed against California on a number of environmental issues beyond just air quality. He has threatened to cut off federal aid for fighting California's wildfires for the state's "terrible job of forest management" and said San Francisco — home of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D), who just led a successful effort to impeach Trump — "is in violation of many sanitary & environmental orders."
In their own conversations, Wheeler said Trump has brought up his unease with water quality in California. "He has been very concerned about the water issues in California and the pollution into the ocean, which is why we're also focusing on San Francisco and we're taking a look at water pollution across the state," Wheeler said.
With only a little more than a year left to go in Trump's term in office, Wheeler said the agency is trying to put the finishing touches on a series of new rules, including ones overhauling how communities must test for lead in water and redefining which waterways are covered by the Clean Water Act.
"So that is certainly a huge push, is to get the major regulatory rulemakings out the door," Wheeler said.
Wheeler also hopes to get those mileage rules that helped kick off the tension with California — in EPA jargon, called Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or “CAFE” standards — finalized in 2020, too.
"I'm hoping that maybe once we finalize our CAFE, that California will take a look at it and say 'it's a good proposal' and they're not going to continue to fight it," Wheeler said.
He paused, and added that maybe he is an "eternal optimist."
But all of that isn't to say Wheeler and his team are not preparing for a possible Trump second term.
"We've already started planning for the first two years of the next term," Wheeler said. "Which I fully believe we will have."
Note to readers: This is our last Energy 202 of the year. We're going to be taking it easy for the next two weeks for the holidays. Hope you do, too. Our next edition will come out on Monday, Jan. 6, 2020. See you next year!
— Another winding campaign rally: Amid a historic day in which Trump became just the third president in U.S. history to be impeached, he also took the stage for a rally in Battle Creek, Mich. that at times "took on a manic tone," as The Post's Josh Dawsey and Ashley Parker write. Here are a few moments from his remarks that lasted almost exactly two hours -- it nearly matched his longest speech ever, according to CNN’s Daniel Dale.
- Trump briefly addressed the Flint water crisis before the Michigan crowd: "How badly was Flint? Who was -- who were the geniuses that did that to you?,” he said.
- He transitioned into an oft-repeated line about clean water and air: “We’re committed to ensuring America has the cleanest air and cleanest water on planet Earth. And that’s what it’s about – it’s about clean air and clean, beautiful water,” he said. “And it’s about keeping our industry, not closing it because of the ridiculous Paris climate accord.” The Post has written before about comments Trump has made conflating the issue of climate change and water and air pollution.
- He knocked advocates of electric vehicles: He disparaged Democratic presidential candidates who have pushed for phasing out gas-powered automobiles. “You know why? They have these maniacs that say they gotta go all electric,” he said. “I want to have an alternative.”
- He once again mocked energy-efficient lightbulbs: He joked about how the bulbs make him look, referencing his administration’s move to prolong the life of old-fashioned, energy-intensive bulbs. “We’re even bringing back the old lightbulb,” he said. “The old lightbulb, which is better. I say why do I always look so orange? You know why, it’s because of the new light – they’re terrible. You look terrible and they cost you many. many times more.” He added: "If you want to buy the newer kind, you can, and if you want to look handsome or beautiful by buying the newer kind... so we're bringing back the old lightbulb."
— Trump taps acting NOAA head to lead the agency permanently: The president has named Neil Jacobs, the meteorologist who has been leading the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in an acting capacity since 2018, to officially helm the agency. It has been without a permanent leader since Trump took office, which is the longest stretch in history.
- Now what: “Jacobs sailed through Senate confirmation to serve as the assistant secretary of commerce or, in his current official capacity, acting head of NOAA,” The Post’s Jason Samenow and Andrew Freedman report. “However, to be confirmed as permanent NOAA administrator, he will require a new confirmation vote.”
- A potential hurdle: Jacobs was the acting head during the “Sharpiegate” incident following Hurricane Dorian. “Although previously considered noncontroversial, Jacobs was embroiled in the scandal that broke out during Hurricane Dorian, in which NOAA released an unsigned statement rebuking Weather Service forecasters for seeming to contradict Trump’s incorrect tweet that Alabama was at great risk from the hurricane,” they write.
— Top NOAA official praises recent climate talks: Ko Barrett, a deputy assistant administrator at NOAA's Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, hailed some of the results from the COP25 that ended last weekend, despite concerns that negotiators were unable to persuade major carbon-emitting countries to pledge to aggressively address the problem.
- What she said: “Having been to COPs for 20 years, this is the COP where I saw the strongest focus on science and public participation,” Barrett said before the NOAA's Science Advisory Board, E&E News reports. She pointed to a statement signed by numerous international parties at the talks, saying that numerous segments “emphasize the role of science.” “I think it's quite interesting to see the way ocean issues, the cryosphere and, broadly, science issues are now the centerpiece of the entire COP experience,” Barrett added.
— Business booming for Bernhardt’s former firm since he joined administration: In the nearly three years since David Bernhardt was nominated to join the Trump administration, a study from environmental group Center for Western Priorities Policy found his former lobbying and law firm has seen a 310 percent hike in business compared with the same time before his nomination.
- By the numbers: “Thirty-six clients have paid Denver-based firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP a total of $11.96 million to lobby the Interior Department, the study found, including 19 clients that hired the company after Bernhardt's initial nomination in April 2017,” E&E News reports. “The study further declared that ‘at least two-thirds of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck's lobbying clients with business before Interior have seen their projects or policies advanced in some way by the department’ while Bernhardt has served as both deputy secretary and, since April, secretary.”
- More context on the firm's business: In April, Juliet Eilperin and I reported that the company had quadrupled its business related to the Interior Department in the past three years. It was a “sign of how the revolving door between industry and government is still spinning two years after Trump won the presidency with a mantra to 'drain the swamp' of special interests.”
— Conservation and animal rights groups sue EPA over slaughterhouse regulations: A dozen groups filed a claim against the Environmental Protection Agency for not updating regulations over how much pollution from slaughterhouses can flow into waterways. “In October, the agency announced it would not revise federal water standards for plants that discharge their processed wastewater directly into waterways, something critics say puts rivers at risk of being overwhelmed by nitrogen, spurring algae blooms that suffocate fish as well as plant life needed to keep rivers healthy,” the Hill reports.
- To quote: “EPA’s national standards for water pollution from slaughterhouses are either weak and outdated or nonexistent,” Environmental Integrity Project attorney Sylvia Lam said in a statement. “It is well past time for EPA to crack down on this public health hazard. Cleaner plants have already installed technology to lessen the pollution they send into their local rivers and streams.”
— U.S. officials surrendering effort to block Russian pipeline: Administration officials are acknowledging they may not be able to halt the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, Bloomberg News reports. U.S. officials have tried for years to intervene in the planned natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany. “Senior U.S. administration officials, who asked not to be identified discussing the administration’s take on the project, said sanctions that passed Congress on Tuesday as part of a defense bill are too late to have any effect. The U.S. instead will try to impose costs on other Russian energy projects, one of the officials added,” per the report.
- Meanwhile: German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the country does not plan to retaliate against the United States over legislation that will impose sanctions on firms working to construct the pipeline project. “I see no other way than to hold talks to make clear that we don’t approve of it,” Merkel said, according to Reuters.
— Marco Rubio withdraws hold on Interior Dept. nominee: Sen. Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) office says he removed a hold blocking the nomination of Katharine MacGregor to be the Interior deputy secretary. He notified the department of the change following a discussion with Bernhardt about opposition to offshore drilling, the Tampa Bay Times reports. The senator’s staff said he told reporters this week that the “most important thing we care about…is ensuring that we don’t have an Interior Department that’s out there advocating against our bill that extends the moratorium. I feel fairly confident that that will be the case.” Rubio was referring to his measure to extend a moratorium on energy exploration in the eastern Gulf of Mexico until 2027.
— U.S. Fish and Wildlife will look into Donald Trump Jr.’s hunting trip in Mongolia: The agency said it will review reports that the president’s son shot and killed an endangered argali, the largest living sheep, Roll Call reports. ProPublica reported that Donald Trump Jr. received approval from the Mongolian government to slay the animal retroactively. “A spokesperson for Trump Jr. on Tuesday provided a statement to CQ Roll Call denying allegations of wrongdoing related to the hunting permit,” per the report.
— Coalition of states proposes ambitious cap-and-trade plan: A group of 12 states and the District of Columbia has proposed a plan to reduce tailpipe pollution from cars, trucks and other modes of transportation, the New York Times reports. The plan from the coalition of Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states would impact a fifth of the nation’s population.
- The details: It sets a cap on the amount of carbon that can be released from vehicles and would allow fuel companies to “buy allowances from the states, either directly or on a secondary market, for every ton of carbon dioxide their fuel will produce. The states then put the proceeds toward efforts to reduce carbon emissions from transportation, including investment in trains, buses, and electric-vehicle charging infrastructure.”
— The oldest-known sea wall couldn’t stop sea-level rise 7,000 years ago: The “oldest known coastal defense worldwide” was built off the coast near Israel by a community that needed to defend their region against rising seas, a new study details. But the wall — 100-meters of boulders parallel to the ancient shoreline — failed. “People abandoned the village. The Mediterranean sea swept inland and drowned the buildings,” The Post’s Ben Guarino reports. Marine archaeologist Jonathan Benjamin called it the “first evidence of that very real problem that we’re dealing with today.”
- Here’s what happened: “Between 9,000 to 7,000 years ago, the Mediterranean crept up the north coast of Israel at about four millimeters per year, the study authors say. The winter waves were increasingly dangerous. Hearths and homes at Tel Hreiz, built of simple stone without mortar, would have been vulnerable to the water… These warning signs may have triggered similar debates to those that coastal communities have now, Benjamin said.”
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing to examine the impacts of wildfire on electric grid reliability and efforts to mitigate wildfire risk and increase grid resiliency.
- The House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Environment holds a hearing on the economic effects of climate change.
— Take a look back at the best cartoons of the year from The Post’s Tom Toles: Including this one below from October: