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The EPA administrator hopes to curtail California’s aggressive fuel economy standards having already backed the authority of states loosening clean air controls.
WASHINGTON — Despite advocating for the primacy of states in setting clean air controls during a congressional oversight hearing on Tuesday, Scott Pruitt appeared to draw the line at states with stricter emissions standards than the federal government.
The Environmental Protection Agency administrator, under questioning from members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, indicated he hopes to renegotiate Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards with the California Air Resources Board in April.
California holds a Clean Air Act waiver that allowed it to set an aggressive CAFE goal of 50 miles per gallon by 2025 during the Obama administration. Vehicle manufacturers would begrudgingly be forced to adopt the standard because 13 other states, accounting for nearly half of all vehicles sold in the U.S when grouped with California, piggybacked onto the waiver.
“Federalism does not mean that one state can dictate to the rest of the country,” Pruitt told Sen. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat. “But we recognize California’s special status on the statute, and we are working with them to find a consensus around these issues.”
Massachusetts, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington are all part of the waiver, but Markey said “we are increasingly fearful there will be a rollback of the fuel economy standards.”
The Transportation Department is currently reviewing greenhouse gas standards for cars and light trucks with the EPA, and the Republican administrator is pushing for “one national program.” If consensus isn’t reached, he could attempt to block California’s waiver—starting a legal battle.
Such a decision would be a departure from Pruitt’s typical “states’ rights” stance on air pollution, which he used to justify revisiting the Regional Haze Program then-President Barack Obama strengthened just before leaving office. One day earlier, Pruitt agreed to loosen Regional Haze restrictions threatening Arkansas coal plants in a move praised by the Republicans present Tuesday, including Sen. John Boozman from the state.
“If implemented, that rule would take authority away from the states and impose a one-size-fits-all federal implementation plan that simply doesn’t make sense,” said Sen. Deb Fischer, a Nebraska Republican.
Fischer attributed Nebraska’s fourth-in-the-nation unemployment rate of 2.7 percent, in part, to Pruitt’s deregulation efforts, which freed the state’s 100-percent public utilities, farmers, ranchers and manufacturers from “cumbersome regulations” and costs at the expense of jobs.
Pruitt said Regional Haze “provides even more primacy to the states” by letting them choose how they reach natural visibility by 2064.
“The agency needs to take a more proactive approach with states, in the submission of plans, to actually recognize their expertise and resources at the local level to achieve those outcomes,” Pruitt said. “And then help provide clarity in the timing as far as getting that done.”
Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, the committee’s ranking Democrat, called Pruitt out for the EPA’s failure to respond within the required 60 days to his state’s petitions to reduce cross-state pollution, which the administrator said he’d endeavor to answer in the next month.
Carper further criticized the EPA’s withdrawal of the “once in always in” policy under the Clean Air Act last Thursday, allowing “major sources” of hazardous air pollutants to be reclassified as “area” sources should they limit potential emissions.
“The Clean Air Act requires EPA to partner with the states to address cross-state air pollution,” Carper said. “These protections are critical for downwind states like Delaware and our neighbors … up and down the East Coast because we are located at what I call ‘the end of America’s tailpipe.’”
Senate Democrats grilled Pruitt on the proposed zeroing out of federal funding for state programs like the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, as well as budget cuts harmful to his stated 2018 goals of ridding all drinking water of lead within the next decade and continued Superfund site cleanup.
Pruitt told Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat, that as part of President Trump’s forthcoming infrastructure package he was pushing for investment in the lead problem. Duckworth countered that he’d extended the deadline to update the Lead and Copper Rule to 2020 and wouldn’t commit to fully funding anti-lead initiatives like the Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water.
“The president’s FY18 budget proposal, which outlines the administration’s 10-year policy priorities, called for the elimination of EPA’s lead-risk reduction program that trains contractors and educates the public on safely removing lead paint from homes,” Duckworth said. “The budget, in reality, also cuts millions of dollars in grant money to states and tribes to address lead risks. This does not sound like a ‘war on lead.’”
Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, expressed concern over a proposed 30 percent cut to Superfund, which cleans up the most contaminated sites and responds to environmental emergencies, oil spills and natural disasters across the country.
The number of Superfund sites are increasing with 11 million citizens, 3 million of them children, living within one mile of them, Booker said, which is known to increase the likelihood of birth defects and autism. Of the 327 Superfund sites at risk of climate change-related flooding, 35 are in New Jersey.
“We need to design remedies that account for [climate change],” Booker told Pruitt, who’s worked to actively scrub the word from EPA vernacular.
Pruitt instead said the agency is working to identify all Superfund sites that pose “an immediate threat to health” like West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton Missouri, the EPA having already approved a $115 million plan to clean up the San Jacinto Waste Pits in Harris County, Texas after they flooded during Hurricane Harvey.
A conversation has just begun to locate operational EPA units in state capitals, instead of the 10 regional offices currently housing half of the agency’s employees, to better address state’s clean air and Superfund cleanup needs, Pruitt said, downplaying the need for money.
“There’s actually 1,340-plus sites across the country that are yet to be remediated, and most of those sites have a responsible company that polluted, that has the money to do it,” Pruitt said. “We have to have processes in place to hold them accountable to get those cleanups occuring.”
The EPA administrator continued to tout “cooperative federalism,” boasting he’d visited nearly 30 states in his first year.
By contrast, Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, blamed the “regulatory rampage” of the Obama administration for contributing to the 2014 Flint, Michigan water crisis and the 2015 Gold King Mine spill near Silverton, Colorado. He additionally pointed out 27 states delayed the implementation of Obama’s Clean Power Plan in court, a plan Pruitt’s EPA is working to withdraw and rewrite.
“Under Administrator Pruitt’s leadership, the EPA has taken a number of bold steps to protect the environment while not harming local economies,” Barrasso said. “Administrator Pruitt is a key leader of the president’s deregulatory agenda, including ending the ‘war on coal.’”
Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.