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California’s air quality chief: If Trump’s EPA gets its way, we’ll be 'fumigated' again by pollution

Remember that ’80s shampoo commercial, “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful”? California is beautiful, and it’s big, and it’s going economic gangbusters — the fifth largest economy in the world now, hardly the “out of control” failing state that President Trump has called it. But part of the reason it’s beautiful is that, with the long-ago blessing of the federal government, the state took serious measures to clear away the gross, choking smog that messed up that beauty, not to mention our lungs.

That began more than 50 years ago. Today, the EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, wants to undo recent fuel emissions and fuel economy rules for California and the 17 other states that share them, and there’s even talk of ending those longstanding waivers that let California smack the smog. So California and those other states are suing to keep those rules because our cars, and our planes and trucks and boats, are now the No. 1 greenhouse gas polluters — not just here, but everywhere in the United States. In the meantime, Mary Nichols, who heads California’s Air Resources Board, clears away any confusion about why these rules matter so much.


What’s at stake in this fight between California and the head of the EPA?

I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that California’s future is at stake here because we have put all of our efforts into cleaning up air pollution. Even though our air isn’t as good as we would like it to be, we have cut down the days of levels of smog to such a point that many people don’t even realize what it was like back in the ’60s and the ’70s, when you couldn’t ever see the mountains and when we had emergency levels of air pollution.

If they win on their effort to take away our ability to set more stringent vehicle standards, we lose the core of our whole program because our smog problem, our public health problem, is directly related to our transportation system.

It sounds like what’s at stake is the quality of life and quality of health in California.

That’s exactly right. I think most people realize that we’re a state that’s pioneered in all kinds of new technologies, but we’re at the center of a car culture based on beautiful and attractive and also very clean vehicles. And without those clean vehicles, this place could well become unlivable. So not only would you be stuck in traffic, but you’d be getting fumigated at the same time.

The auto industry agreed to this set of Obama-era regulations regarding increased fuel efficiency and cleaner emissions. Now it seems to be saying to the Trump administration, “We don’t want this. Can you fix it so it’s what it was before?”

They tend to talk through their trade associations, but what they are saying is, yes, we agreed to this deal back in 2012. But that was then, and this is now. And we’re selling so many more big SUV and trucks right now, and that’s where we make our money, so just please leave us alone. They will say in the second paragraph, of course we still want to meet the goals. We just need more time or we need a little extra relief. Unfortunately, that message didn’t necessarily get through to Scott Pruitt, and his interpretation of this is, we should get rid of this whole deal.

Are there two different kinds of cars sold in the United States when it comes to emissions and gas efficiency?

No, that is a misconception which I think has been spread by people who want to bring the whole program down. We have about half of all of the zero-emission plug-in vehicles in the country riding around here in California, and we get the cleaner cars first because our customers demand them. But the car companies are making only one version of all of their models.

Once upon a time, there used to be separate standards. That hasn’t been true for a decade now, if not more. They build cars for the California market, and they sell them everywhere and people are very happy buying them. They don’t call them “California cars,” they’re just “cars.”

The first battleground is the Obama-era standards, but in a larger sense, this could be a slippery slope, to go back to the 1960s, when California started making its own rules about emissions and a waiver was granted by the EPA that said, yes, California, you can set your own standards because you have your own particular needs.

The ability of California to set its own standards, as long as we can demonstrate that they are technologically feasible and meet our environmental needs, which we have done over 100 times now — that comes from the very first federal Clean Air Act, going back to 1970. And it was fought for by Gov. Ronald Reagan. He was a major advocate for California having that specific provision carved out in the Clean Air Act.

But what’s happening now is the threat — and it is only a threat — to go back to Congress and get that provision taken out of the Clean Air Act. I think we could probably succeed in preventing that from happening. But there’s no certainty. It would take all of our efforts, and all of the other states that have followed California’s standards or that just believe that states should be able to have this right, joining with us. And frankly, I’d just as soon not have to have that battle.

Under Xavier Becerra, the attorney general, California and 17 other states are suing to block the EPA and Scott Pruitt.

And we’re joining with our attorney general in a number of those lawsuits because we see that the current administration is looking wherever it can to roll back existing standards. The next step would be if [the lawsuits] don’t succeed in the courts. Then I believe they will try with Congress.

The biggest head-scratcher for me was our L.A. Times lead story on April 21: The Trump administration says California’s mileage standards can put people’s lives at risk, that fuel-efficient cars are unsafe.

The cars being sold today are cleaner and better made than they were in the last generation of motor vehicles. They’re using some newer materials, some of which are more lightweight, but they’re stronger. They’re manufacturing cars better than they used to.

So this idea that they were going to be unsafe has to do with this somewhat cockamamie idea being promoted at one point by — I’m sorry to say — the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration people, that the cars would all be smaller, people would be buying smaller cars, and therefore they would be more at risk if they ran into a larger vehicle, that there’d be, instead of just maybe some damage to the car, there might be injury or losses of life.

People have been looking at this and collecting real-world data and it’s just not true.

Another part of the Trump administration’s argument is if you make these changes, cars will become too expensive, therefore people won’t buy newer cars that have safety features, and that will endanger lives as well.

This is an argument that goes back to the very beginning of pollution-control programs. And I’m unfortunately old enough to remember back in the ’70s when we first required the catalytic converters to be put on cars. And part of the [Trump] argument was, it was going to cost too much money for no benefit in air pollution, which the car companies didn’t think was all that big of a problem to begin with.

We persevered. The federal government ended up following in our footsteps a couple of years later. And while it’s true that any piece of equipment you put on a car adds something to the purchase price, you’re talking about maybe $100 or more on the cost of a many-thousand-dollar vehicle, which gets buried in the price of the car that you actually pay.

But the other point that they failed to mention is that by putting catalytic converters on the cars, they were able to retune the engines so that they ran more efficiently and actually had better performance.

So you ended up with a car that had better pickup, better mileage and also was not polluting the air. That’s a triple winner.

Gov. Jerry Brown is usually pretty temperate in his language, but he called Scott Pruitt an “outlaw” and said that this action is an outrage.

I think the governor is upset, and I am too, that we have as the administrator of the EPA a person who fundamentally doesn't agree with the mission of the agency that he has been put in charge of.

Step by step, bit by bit, he’s looking to dismantle the structure that's been created over a 50-year period that Americans have come to rely on. And it is deeply offensive to those of us who've been working in this area for so many years to see that happening.

Is there a risk that this could derail California’s greenhouse gas emissions standards?

California set a target for ourselves by legislation. And as far as I know, there’s no political appetite for changing it. It’s true that if the rest of the country were to go backward to a greater degree than they are today, that [California] would be so out of whack with our neighbors in other states that we travel to and that send people here, it could make it much more difficult for California to move ahead on our program.

But in fact, we’re seeing the opposite. When Trump announced he was going to pull the United States out of the Paris accord that committed 193 countries to work to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases, states and cities stepped up and said, “We’re still going to pursue those goals anyway.”

So although California is a leader in terms of having set a legislative target and having worked on this effort going back to Gov. Schwarzenegger’s administration, many other states and hundreds of cities are joined with us in agreeing that we want to try to achieve these targets.

Does Scott Pruitt or his agency have the unilateral authority to revoke California’s right to set its own emissions standards?

We strongly believe that we have the right to the waiver that we already have received in the past, and to future waivers, as long as we meet the tests that were laid out in the Clean Air Act, and therefore that administrator Pruitt and his group would not be able to roll back or revoke those standards. But if they try — and they may — then of course we’ll have to go to court and test it.

You tweeted to Scott Pruitt toward the end of April, “Call me.” Has he?

No; no, he hasn’t. I’ve never met Scott Pruitt. I don’t know the man at all. I was attempting to tweak him a little bit and see if I could get him to call me.

He had testified in Congress that he was engaged in diplomacy and a very deliberate effort with California to see if we couldn’t resolve our differences over what the standards for vehicle emissions should be going forward.

I was making that point, in what I hoped was a humorous way, that was just not true.

What happens next?

We have had several meetings with representatives of the Trump administration in which we’ve agreed that they would share data with us, and that we would talk about whether there was a way that they could achieve what they believe is important in terms of giving some relief to the auto companies, and still do it in a way that didn’t sacrifice the progress that we worked for and fought for over the years, that’s already locked into the existing standards through 2025. But that hasn’t happened yet.

Another interesting question is whether the public cares about this issue; do people pay attention? It’s often argued that people don’t really buy cars based on fuel economy, and when the price of gasoline is cheap, people probably pay a little bit less attention to the miles-per-gallon that’s listed on the sticker.

But sales of SUVs and trucks have gone up because the gasoline prices are comparatively low.

That is true that people are buying more SUVs and more crossover vehicles and light trucks. But all of those vehicles — in many instances, I should say — still achieve better fuel economy than they did even a couple of years ago because of the standards put into effect in the Obama administration.

Ford’s best-selling vehicle, which is an F-150 pickup truck, meets the standards that are on the books today that the Trump administration wants to roll back. A customer who wants to buy one of these trucks can go in and get it and not only be driving something big and something that looks like it’s on steroids, but can also still get decent fuel economy.

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