California may be running out of time with a friendly Washington

California may be running out of time with a friendly Washington

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California is rushing to implement a sweeping array of climate change policies before a potential second Donald Trump presidency. But the state is running into a growing backlog of federal approvals for its nation-leading clean air rules.

California’s new rule requiring trucking companies to buy increasing numbers of zero-emission vehicles was supposed to take effect Monday. Instead, companies learned last week they wouldn’t be penalized for noncompliance until the federal government grants California permission to enforce the measure.

The Golden State is waiting on Biden administration waivers for several high-priority climate and air pollution rules to set more-stringent emissions standards than national requirements. Ironically, in most cases, it’s the Democratic president’s Environmental Protection Agency that’s putting the deep blue state’s pioneering environmental policies at risk over what appear to be mere bureaucratic delays.

“A Trump EPA is not going to give these waivers,” said Dan Sperling, a former member of the California Air Resources Board who directs the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis. “Getting EPA to accelerate the granting of the waivers has to be a priority.”

The rule that the California Air Resources Board postponed last week would require large trucking fleets to use zero-emission vehicles by 2042. Other rules in EPA’s queue include emissions limits on lawn mowers, ferries, locomotives and refrigeration units on trucks and railcars.

Industry groups are closely watching how Biden’s EPA will handle the logjam, anticipating that federal regulators will try to clear their agenda before the possibility of a Trump takeover.

“The political calculation in the Biden White House is going to be really interesting,” said Joe Rajkovacz, director of governmental affairs for the Western States Trucking Association, which represents small trucking companies and is suing over a pair of California emissions rules, including the truck-purchasing mandate. “Do they push EPA to grant the waiver before November, or do they wait till after the election?”

Several of the rules have been at EPA for more than a year, and several more just entered the queue in November. Given that EPA generally takes at minimum six months but often over a year to act on waivers, the timeline is bumping up against the presidential election — and creating a new sense of urgency among environmentalists.

“In my opinion, it’s not too early to panic,” said Bill Magavern, policy director for the Coalition for Clean Air, an environmental group.

The reason environmentalists are so worried about Trump is his administration’s shattering of norms in 2019, when EPA withdrew a waiver that the Obama administration had previously granted to enforce auto emissions standards. It was the first time an administration had attempted to revoke an existing waiver, and sent shock waves through California and the other 18 states that are signed on to follow its tailpipe emissions rules.

“That was a huge deal politically,” said Mary Nichols, who served as CARB chair from the tail end of the George W. Bush administration through 2020.

California’s waivers are now a perennial punching bag for congressional Republicans, who have taken aim at the state’s electric vehicle mandate and ban on gas-powered lawn equipment. And a group of red states, led by Ohio, is challenging the constitutionality of California’s unique authority to set stricter-than-federal air quality standards, in a case that could reach the Supreme Court.

A former U.S. EPA scientist who worked at the agency during the Trump years said that not having the waivers in hand would make it still easier for a second Trump administration to prevent California from implementing its rules.

“If the waivers haven’t been provided before a change of administration, they would immediately change direction on those waivers, and use any non-legal, non-scientific method to deny them, as they did in the previous administration,” said Matt Davis, who worked as an EPA health scientist from 2009-19 and now serves as legislative director for the League of Conservation Voters.

The Trump campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment.

EPA officials said they didn’t have a timing estimate for any of the waiver requests. “With each of the waiver requests submitted by California, EPA must follow the process of a public comment period and final determination,” agency spokesperson Angela Hackel said in an email. “We have no timeline for when EPA will reach a final decision for these actions.”

It’s not clear that EPA is to blame for the entire backlog, although some of the waivers, like ones to approve emissions limits on lawn mowers, refrigerated truck units and ferries, have been sitting at the agency for more than a year. All of them have provisions that technically went into effect this week.

In the case of California’s truck rule, the air board only requested a waiver in November, well after it approved the regulation in April and only two months before it was supposed to take effect. That left EPA little room to approve the rule in time.

The state’s tight timeline and subsequent notice that it wouldn’t enforce the Advanced Clean Fleets rule may have been designed to draw EPA’s attention, Nichols said.

“By sending this message out, they’re presumably trying to light a fire under all the people who support the ACF to make a fuss and get the EPA to expedite it,” she said.

The air board said its timing was focused on quickly reducing emissions.

“CARB established the compliance requirements of the ACF regulation to ensure that that regulation will timely reduce the emissions from medium- and heavy-duty trucks that harm the public health and environment of Californians, in conjunction with other elements of California’s motor vehicle emissions control program,” CARB spokesperson Lys Mendez said in an email.

One of the reasons it might be taking EPA so long to approve other waivers is the agency’s habitual large workload and short staffing levels. “It wouldn’t surprise me if there’s still some staff capacity issues here and there,” Davis said.

Another reason is increased legal scrutiny and challenges from industry, which is going after California’s rules for locomotives, truck fleets and passenger car emissions.

“The federal courts have become so hostile that I think perhaps EPA is being more cautious, because of the likelihood that they will be sued over waivers,” Magavern said.

There are some signs of movement. California asked EPA in June to approve a waiver for its Advanced Clean Cars II rule, which sets fuel economy standards for passenger vehicles and requires increasing percentages of zero-emission car sales. EPA last week took the first step in the process, scheduling a public hearing for Jan. 10.

An earlier version of this report first appeared in the California Climate newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.

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