Editorial: Trump’s EPA is playing politics with California instead of working to clean up the air

The Trump administration has threatened to cut off federal transportation funding to California as punishment for the state's air quality problems.
(Los Angeles Times)

The Trump administration’s latest attack on California is so transparently spiteful that it would almost be laughable if we weren’t talking about something as serious as clean, breathable air and a habitable planet.

On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency chastised California for having “the worst air quality in the United States” and threatened to cut off federal transportation funding as punishment for submitting inadequate pollution-control plans. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler complained that about 130 such plans have been gathering dust at his agency, some of them for decades, waiting to be completed or improved.

But never fear, Wheeler asserted, the Trump administration — with its “goal of clean, healthy air for all Americans” — would push California to rewrite the plans and finally clean up its smoggy, sooty air. If not, his agency would seek to layer on the penalties, which could include blocking highway funding, doubling pollution fees on power plants and other industrial sites that want to expand operations, and possibly even writing new, stronger pollution plans itself.



This is an administration that has spent the last two years trying to roll back environmental protections and make it harder for states — especially California — to clean up the air.

A good example is in vehicle emission standards. California had worked with the Obama administration to adopt ambitious emission-reduction standards for the industry to reach by 2025, only to have the Trump administration announce in 2017 that it was abandoning the proposed reductions. This summer California reached an agreement with four major automakers to maintain higher standards, creating the possibility that much or all of the industry would defy the Trump administration to cut emissions. The administration responded by seeking to revoke California’s power to set stricter vehicle emissions standards than the federal government’s — a decades-old exception that recognized the state’s leadership in developing policies and technologies to cut air pollution.

A senior EPA official, who insisted on remaining anonymous during a conference call with reporters, asserted that the letter to California threatening the loss of highway funds was completely unrelated to the ongoing fight over cleaner cars and the state’s authority to set its own standards.


Admittedly, California and its regional air-quality authorities have repeatedly failed to cut pollution enough to meet federal standards. The state’s cities may not suffer from the choking smog that enveloped them in the 1960s, but more still needs to be done. Having workable plans for reducing emissions from vehicles, refineries, power plants and other sources would certainly help.

All the same, the letter smacks of political gamesmanship, rather than a serious concern for public health and the environment. Even if the EPA chose to act on its threats, the penalties would not take effect until 2021, when — we hope — there will be a new, more environmentally responsible administration in Washington.

The ongoing fight is deeply frustrating because there is so much at stake. California does have some of the the worst air quality in the nation through a combination of pollution, climate and geography. In Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley, high levels of smog and soot damage children’s lungs, raise adults’ risk of heart attacks and cause other deadly effects.

California needs a partner, not an adversary, to finally clean up the air. That’s particularly true because so much of the state’s pollution problems are created by vehicles — heavy-duty diesel trucks, trains, planes and ships — that are regulated by the federal government. The transportation sector is also the state’s largest source of the greenhouse gases responsible for climate change. If the Trump administration revokes California’s ability to set tougher auto emissions standards and mandate zero-emission cars, it’s hard to see how the state will ever meet Clean Air Act mandates or help slow global warming.

The EPA is supposed to be the nation’s steward of the environment and public health. That mission is being sacrificed to the Trump administration’s political vendettas, and people will suffer as a result.