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September 24, 2019 1:45 PM, EDT

EPA Threatens California Highway Funding Over Smog-Choked Skies

California Mario Tama/Bloomberg News

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The Trump administration is escalating its fight against California by taking aim at its air pollution problem — a move the state’s governor called a “brazen political stunt.”

The Environmental Protection Agency notified California in a letter Sept. 24 that it has failed to file complete plans for fighting conventional air pollution and may lose highway funding as punishment. The letter comes only days after the EPA said it would strip away two of the state’s tools for fighting smog.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler chided the state for not doing enough to throttle conventional air pollution, noting that 82 California areas fail to meet federal air quality requirements, putting some 34 million of its residents at risk.

California “has failed to carry out its most basic tasks under the Clean Air Act” and is failing its residents with the “chronic air quality problems,” Wheeler said in his letter to the head of the California Air Resources Board.

If California doesn’t work with the EPA to develop complete, approved plans for implementing federal air quality standards — and withdraw unapproved plans now pending with the agency — it could be hit with highway funding sanctions and other consequences, Wheeler wrote. “We certainly want to avoid these statutory triggers,” he wrote, “but our foremost concern must be ensuring clean air for all Americans.”

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The move comes as the Trump administration fights California over auto rules, the state’s pact with carmakers to voluntarily reduce emissions and even trash from its homeless residents. Earlier this month, the Trump administration warned California the voluntary agreement with automakers was unlawful, after the Justice Department opened an antitrust probe into the deal. And the EPA last week took formal action to repeal California’s power to mandate electric vehicles and limit tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases. California, which says those requirements are necessary to fight smog, has filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the move.

Although an EPA official cast the Sept. 24 notification as part of a broader effort to winnow a backlog of unapproved anti-pollution plans, the official sidestepped questions about what other states have outsize backlogs or whether the agency had ever taken similar action against other offenders.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom accused the White House of trying to bully the state.

“The White House has no interest in helping California comply with the Clean Air Act to improve the health and well-being of Californians,” Newsom said in an emailed statement. “This letter is a threat of pure retaliation.”

Margo Oge, a former director of the EPA transportation and air quality office, said the EPA did not take similar action against a state during her 18 years at the agency. “President Trump’s punitive actions against California is nothing more than a 2-year-old throwing a temper tantrum,” she said.

Representatives of the CARB, which oversees air quality in the state, did not immediately have a response.

Previously, board Chairman Mary Nichols has maintained that if the state can’t set robust vehicle standards — like those being targeted by the Trump administration — it will need to pursue “extreme” alternatives to offset the uptick in pollution. That could include strict controls on the movement of vehicles, stiffer requirements for refineries processing fuel, fees and even bans on conventional vehicles with combustion engines, Nichols said in May.

A senior EPA official said Sept. 24 the agency wants to winnow a backlog of unapproved anti-pollution plans broadly and is only targeting California first because the state’s 130 unapproved blueprints represent a disproportionate share of the problem. Many of California’s stalled plans are inactive, lack essential information or are otherwise unapprovable, Wheeler said in his letter.