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Fearing President Trump's next steps, California lawmakers review their options under Clean Air Act

Sen. Bob Wieckowski (left) held a hearing on the Clean Air Act on Wednesday. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)
Sen. Bob Wieckowski (left) held a hearing on the Clean Air Act on Wednesday. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

In a sign of uneasiness over President Trump's environmental agenda, state lawmakers hosted a hearing Wednesday to discuss how California's air quality policies rely on federal regulations.

Although the state is allowed to pursue stricter rules than federal standards under the nearly five-decade-old Clean Air Act, such steps require a waiver from the federal government. Trump's choice to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, former Oklahoma Atty. Gen. Scott Pruitt, has signaled he may be more skeptical of the state's requests than previous administrators, who granted requests nearly every time they were submitted.

“Nothing in the law has changed to justify the EPA withholding our waiver," said Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), who testified at the hearing. "The only thing that has changed is the balance of political power in Washington, D.C."

The waivers have been an important tool for California's efforts to improve air quality in polluted areas and tackle global warming. Other states also can choose to follow California's lead, meaning waiver requests made from Sacramento can have nationwide implications.

“If Washington doesn’t want to lead on cleaning up our air or fighting climate change, it should stay out of our way," De León said.

In an interview after the hearing, Sen. Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont) said it may be more difficult for California to hit its ambitious target for slashing greenhouse gas emissions without new waivers, particularly when it comes to requiring more zero emission vehicles in the state.

“I don’t know if we have any other choice if we’re going to meet these air quality standards," he said.

But absent a "good healthy relationship" with Washington, he said, "it’s probably better to delay" asking for additional waivers.

Although new requests may be tougher under the Trump administration, state regulators are less worried about legal threats to waivers that already have been granted.

“The state may not receive the same level of cooperation, but we anticipate that our existing waivers ... will not be significantly compromised," said Kurt Karperos, deputy executive officer at the California Air Resources Board.

However, the state could be in a bind if the federal government loosens rules under the Clean Air Act but refuses to grant California a waiver to keep the previous, higher standards.

"Then we're stuck," said Richard Frank, director of the California Environmental Law and Policy Center at the UC Davis.

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