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EPA Threatens to Take Away Billions in Highway Funding Over Air Quality in California

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【Summary】The Trump administration has escalated its vehicle emissions feud with the state of California on Tuesday by threatening to withdraw billions of dollars in federal highway funds citing poor air quality in the state.

Eric Walz    Sep 24, 2019 5:00 PM PT
EPA Threatens to Take Away Billions in Highway Funding Over Air Quality in California
Freeway traffic near Los Angeles on August 2.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The Trump administration has escalated its vehicle emissions feud with the state of California on Tuesday by threatening to withdraw billions of dollars in federal highway funds citing poor air quality in the state.

In a letter to California Air Resource Board (CARB) chief Mary Nichols, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the state "has failed to carry out its most basic tasks under the Clean Air Act." Wheeler said the state failed to produce timely plans to meet targets for ambient air quality goals.

Wheeler added that California must withdraw its inactive plans that would most likely be denied. If the EPA rejects a plan, it could trigger "highway funding sanctions, which could result in a prohibition on federal transportation projects and grants in certain parts of California," Wheeler said.

Last year, California received nearly $4 billion in funds, the highest amount of federal highway funding out of any state, second only to Texas, which received nearly 3.7 billion in funding to maintain roads and other infrastructure.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said the "threat to withhold California's highway funding over clean air quality reports is the height of hypocrisy."

In statement, California Governor Gavin Newsom described the EPA's position as a "threat of pure retaliation. While the White House tries to bully us and concoct new ways to make our air dirtier, California is defending our state's clean air laws from President (Donald) Trump's attacks."

The move by the EPA is widely believed to be in retaliation for California suing the federal government after the Trump Administration revoked California's right to set its own fuel economy standards for motor vehicles.

Last week, The Trump administration formally revoked California's authority to set its own automobile emission standards. 

In response, California and 22 other states filed a lawsuit in federal court last week challenging its decision to revoke California's right to set emission limits on cars and light trucks. California is the most populous state in the nation. The cities of Los Angeles, New York and the District of Columbia, also joined in the lawsuit.

At a press conference on Sept 19, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Wheeler and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, announced that the EPA would withdraw the 2013 Clean Air Act waiver that permitted California to set its own tailpipe greenhouse gas emission standards. 

The EPA's latest is was part of a broader effort by the Trump Administration to scale back Obama era rules requiring U.S. auto fleets to average nearly 51 miles per gallon by model year 2025. Trump officials also drafted a plan to freeze federal mileage standards at roughly 37 miles per gallon though model year 2026.

Some automakers were against the freeze. In July, Ford Motor Co, BMW, Honda and Volkswagen agreed to adhere to stricter standards even if Trump's regulatory rollbacks were finalized. The was followed by the Justice Department opening a probe into the automakers that struck the voluntary emissions deal with California. 

The Fight for Clean Air in California

California's work to clean up air pollution goes back decades. In 1966, California established the first tailpipe emissions standards in the nation. For years, vehicles sold in California were required to meet the state's stringent emissions requirements, which exceeded even that of the EPA.

In Aug 1967, then California Governor and former President Ronald Regan approved the Mulford-Carrell Air Resources Act to create the California Air Resources Board (CARB), committing California to a unified, statewide approach to aggressively addressing the serious issue of air pollution in the state.

That same year, the Federal Air Quality Act was enacted, which allowed California to set its own stringent air quality rules due to the amount of cars on the road and population density that was much higher than other states.

Despite the fight over emissions in the state, California leads the nation in electric vehicle sales and the number of pure EVs on the road keeps climbing. Sales of new electric vehicles in California rose 63.7% in the first half of the year, to 51,750 units, partly due to the popularity of the Tesla Model 3. 

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