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White House Pollution Proposal Puts Big Government Ahead Of States' Rights

The new rule targets vehicles, fuel economy standards, and emissions.
Ryan Caron King
The new rule targets vehicles, fuel economy standards, and emissions.

State officials say they’ll fight a White House proposal to loosen pollution standards for new vehicles. Many leaders are fearful the Republican idea will put federal mandates ahead of state law.

The proposed rule would make it easier for new cars and light trucks to pollute.

It tosses out mandates for tailpipe emissions and fuel economy set up by President Obama’s administration that were set to increase through 2026.

Instead, Republicans want to hold pollution standards flat starting in 2020, saying it will drive down vehicle costs.

The proposal, from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation, also opens up a new, Republican-led, challenge to states rights by seeking to restructure the Clean Air Act and its so-called “California Waiver.”

That waiver lets states like California, and Connecticut, enforce stricter pollution rules than what the federal government mandates.

“This is a decision to ignore all of the warnings on air quality and on greenhouse gas emissions and say to Connecticut, and other states who are struggling to address air pollution, screw you,” said Rob Klee, head of Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Klee says transportation emissions make up about 70 percent of air pollution in Connecticut. And that the Clean Air Act was designed specifically so downwind states like Connecticut could draft stronger pollution rules to protect its residents.

“This is not an area where one size fits all,” Klee said. “The Clean Air Act had within its structure the ability for states to go above and beyond. And now, apparently, the Trump administration seems to want to ignore that fact.”

Which is sure to set up a long legal fight. If the idea is finalized, California will sue. The EPA would likely have to prove the reversal was warranted. And it’s unclear what role, if any, Congress will have.

“It’s gutting these foundational environmental laws,” said Emily Lewis, a policy analyst at the Acadia Center, an environmental advocacy group. “Transportation is the biggest chunk of emissions that we’re trying to deal with right now. We’ve brought down emissions significantly in the electricity generating sector. We really need to be addressing transportation. So this is just a complete 180-reversal from where we need to be going.”

Meanwhile, states’ attorneys general are already lining up to challenge the proposal.

This week 20 of them, including Connecticut’s, announced they’ll sue to block any proposed changes.

“As a downwind state, Connecticut struggles to maintain our air quality,” said Attorney General George Jepsen, in a statement. “Lessening standards for passenger cars and light-duty trucks nationwide will only exacerbate the problem.”  

DEEP’s Klee said those legal challenges mean any possible changes -- like the sweeping ones to vehicle emissions Trump is proposing -- would take a long time.

“The cynic in me would say that’s their goal -- to delay everything and stretch out the time frame,” Klee said.

“I don’t want to pretend I understand the Trump administration or their choices," Klee said. "All I do know is that they’re making choices that are directly impacting the health of our citizens.” 

Copyright 2018 Connecticut Public

Patrick Skahill is a reporter at WNPR. He covers science and the environment. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of WNPR's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached by phone at 860-275-7297 or by email: pskahill@ctpublic.org.