Capitol Alert

Democrats took the House. Now they want to save California’s clean car rules from Trump

Clean car advocates and state leaders converge on Fresno for EPA hearing

Clean car advocates and state leaders gathered in Fresno on Monday, Sept. 24, 2018 for an EPA hearing against the plan to revoke California's authority on vehicle pollution.
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Clean car advocates and state leaders gathered in Fresno on Monday, Sept. 24, 2018 for an EPA hearing against the plan to revoke California's authority on vehicle pollution.

For two years California Democrats have battled President Donald Trump on climate change with lawsuits from Sacramento.

Now they’re challenging Trump on greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution from their newly empowered positions in the House majority.

This week, Democratic Rep. Doris Matsui of Sacramento plans to introduce legislation to defend California’s “clean car” fuel economy standards, which have become the benchmark for 12 other states and the District of Columbia and would compel automakers to ramp up average fuel mileage to 50.8 miles per gallon on new cars by 2025.

The Trump administration has released plans to soften those standards beginning in 2021, arguing they are too costly for automakers and consumers, undoing regulations the Obama administration put in place in 2012 that would have established federal rules to match California’s.

In the process, the White House is challenging California’s ability to set its own fuel efficiency requirements. The state has had that power for decades, a legacy of its early efforts to reduce urban smog.

The state, through the California Air Resources Board, has pushed ahead with more stringent mileage standards, anyway. Talks between the federal government and state regulators have so far failed to break the impasse.

Matsui’s legislation, which is co-sponsored by seven fellow Californians and 19 Democrats total, would require the Environmental Protection Agency to adhere to the standards established under Obama in 2012.

Although it’s not something President Trump or Senate Republicans are likely to consider on its own, it’s the type of measure California Democrats will continue to try to insert into other legislative deals as their party ratchets up its focus on the environment and what it has labeled a “Green New Deal.”

Climate change hearing

Matsui’s bill roll-out comes as the House, controlled by a Democratic majority for the first time since 2010, is set to hold a Wednesday hearing on the impacts of climate change.

As staff for new Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone observed in a memo announcing the hearing, “the transportation sector is now the largest source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and is expected to drive emissions increases in the coming years.”

Fuel economy standards, which require passenger cars and light-duty trucks to meet rising gas mileage marks, are likely to be one big piece of the agenda House Democrats’ new Select Committee on the Climate Crisis is expected to pursue, confirmed Rep. Cathy Castor, who was recently chosen as its chairwoman. Castor, of Florida, is also a co-sponsor of Matsui’s legislation.

Castor said she hopes the issue represents “some of the low hanging fruit that can be accomplished in this Congress,” despite the divided party control on Capitol Hill. While she acknowledged it would be difficult to win over Republicans, “Maybe just maybe we can build a bipartisan consensus” to cement the more aggressive standards.

Democratic leaders have yet to appoint the members of the select committee, but California Democrats are ubiquitous on the two other leading committees overseeing environmental policy.

Matsui is a senior member of the Energy Commerce Committee, and is joined by Reps. Jerry McNerney of Stockton, Anna Eshoo of Menlo Park, and four Democrats from Southern California. Democratic Reps. Jim Costa and T.J. Cox of Fresno and Jared Huffman of San Rafael are among six Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee.

Automakers appeal to EPA

And then there are some less traditional perches from which Democrats believe they can advance climate change policies.

Rep. John Garamendi of Walnut Grove, for example, plans to make climate change a focus of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness, which he now chairs. According to an aide, the congressman believes the issue needs to be factored into the military’s planning when preparing for future conflicts.

He is prepared to try to attach legislative language on climate change to bigger, must-pass bills that oversee the Defense Department. The Pentagon last month released a report that called climate change a danger to military installations.

It’s one way Democrats hope they can get new climate changes policies passed, despite the staunch opposition of President Donald Trump and Republican leaders in the Senate.

Hearings and legislation like Matsui’s can also “serve as a way of amplifying the issues,” said Irene Gutierrez, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental advocacy group.

The focus on the EPA’s attempts to halt the 2012 Obama standards could also feed into legal challenges. One lawsuit, led by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, is already moving through the courts. It argues the EPA did not follow proper procedures when it moved to revise the fuel efficiency standards last year.

Carmakers, however, argue that the original 2012 standards were the “product of egregious procedural and substantive defects,” as the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers wrote in a Feb. 2017 letter to then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

Other lawsuits are likely if and when the EPA finalizes its rules. Supporters of the higher mileage standards, like Gutierrez of the NRDC, hope to prove that by siding with industry interests, the “EPA is not doing their job of protecting public health and environment.”

To the extent that House investigators can produce evidence of that, it could find its way into court.

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Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and policy for McClatchy’s California readers. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.

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