State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

The States Resist Trump’s Environmental Agenda

The Trump Administration’s efforts to roll back environmental regulations is running into the state and local opposition one might expect given this nation’s strong support for environmental protection. California Governor Jerry Brown is suing the federal government over efforts to weaken automobile gas mileage standards, and California is joined in that suit by 16 other states. According to David R. Baker’s report on a recent Brown press conference:

“At one point referring to the administrator as “Outlaw Pruitt,” Brown said Pruitt and President Trump want Americans to buy more gasoline. He slammed both for ignoring global warming science, which holds that rising greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels are heating the planet. In California, well over a third of greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation. “Climate change is not a joke, the fires, the floods, the rising sea levels,” Brown said, at a press conference in Sacramento. “This is real stuff, and if Pruitt doesn’t get it, if Trump doesn’t get it, they’ve got to go.””

From the very start of U.S. ambient air quality standards in 1970, California has been permitted to exceed national standards. The 1970 Clean Air Act enshrines that in law and permits other states to follow California’s lead. Thirteen states do just that and over 30 percent of the cars in America must adhere to California’s requirements. Without a change in the Clean Air Act, it is unlikely that California would lose this case in court. The objective of California’s lawsuit appears to be to convince EPA to give up its effort to undermine California’s rules.

Meanwhile, here in New York State, the prospect of oil rigs off the Hamptons has Governor Andrew Cuomo revved up for a fight. Earlier this year President Trump and his Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced their intent to open all federal ocean waters to drilling. While the coast off of Mar-A-Lago and the rest of Florida was quickly excluded from this policy, the rest of America’s coastline may soon be open for business. In a press event last week Cuomo proposed the “Save Our Waters Act,” a law that would prevent hydrocarbon infrastructure from being built on New York’s shoreline. As Will Bredderman reported in Crain’s New York Business:

“Cuomo argued that the federal government enjoys jurisdiction over territorial waters in the Atlantic, but that the state remains sovereign over its own soil. “We control our state and our shores,” the governor said. “You put in an oil platform, you better be prepared to run that pipe to Virginia, because it’s not going to run to the state of New York.” 

It is not clear that anyone is actually interested in drilling off of Long Island, but it is clear that Governor Cuomo is engaged in a nasty primary fight with well-known actor-activist Cynthia Nixon and is busy reinforcing his progressive credentials on a daily basis.

Election year politics aside, what both Brown and Cuomo realize is that advocating environmental protection is good politics. The average person may have difficulty understanding the impact of communication and financial deregulation, but they know what dirty air looks like and they don’t want their summers at the beach ruined by a leaking oil rig. The radical anti-environmental agenda of the Trump administration is out of step with U.S. public opinion. Trump officials continue to frame environmental issues in the terminology of the 1970s and 1980s. To them, free market capitalism and making money dominates all other values. Counter to data and clear evidence, Trump believes that environmental protection costs jobs and inhibits economic growth. You can always find some people who have lost their jobs and businesses due to environmental rules, but in a nation where 80 percent of the GDP is generated in the service sector, that group is far from dominant. Moreover, there is no question that environmental regulation has generated far more wealth than it has cost in America.

State opposition to Trump’s environmental agenda has been centered on about a dozen and a half state attorneys general that have already sued the Administration 29 times over environmental issues. By late April 2018, the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center at NYU’s Law School had recorded 94 actions by states to defend environmental protection. This included 52 regulatory and policy actions, which the NYU Center maintains are “often more significant than lawsuits in shaping policy or regulatory outcomes.” The mission of NYU’s Center is to support “…state attorneys general in defending and promoting clean energy, climate and environmental laws and policies.” The Center, headed by David J. Hayes, a well-known environmental lawyer and former senior official in the U.S. Department of the Interior, is less than a year old. A report they released this past February provides detail on the extent of state resistance to the Trump environmental agenda.

These states are providing a significant counterforce to the anti-environmental policy push of the Trump Administration. Governors like Brown and Cuomo are forcefully articulating their opposition to these policies. State attorneys general are fighting the rule rollback in the courts. Under our federal system, states have sovereignty and the legal right and obligation to protect the health and welfare of their residents. Even as the courts become more conservative, the structure of environmental law remains intact, and conservative jurists know they are not authorized to write new laws. Moreover, the folks controlling the federal government today know they have no chance of repealing or weakening federal environmental law. Even where regulations can be legally revised, the resources of state attorneys general offices can be deployed to significantly delay changes in regulations.

My guess is that Pruitt and his pals know all of this. They know these regulatory pronouncements are designed to communicate intent and are largely symbolic. The real rollback will be in weakened inspection and enforcement. The science needed to support regulatory enforcement is being gutted. Companies that violate rules know that the probability they’ll be caught has gone down, and if caught, they expect to receive lenient treatment from the federal government. Again, that is where state attorneys general may be able to fill in the gaps when federal enforcement fails. In states with weak governments, or governments with more sympathy for the administration’s anti-environmental ideology, local governments, environmental advocates and the media will push states to act. Still, the Administration controls federal organizational management and if Trump’s people can’t enact deregulation by law and policy they can achieve it by inaction, inadequate oversight, and inadequate resources.

But there are limits to anti-environmental posturing, because at some point reality sets in. We saw this with the water pollution crisis in Flint, Michigan. The federal government (under Obama) failed, the state government failed under Republican Governor Rick Snyder, and the local “emergency managers” appointed by Snyder to run the financially challenged city also failed. Community activists and the media called attention to the crisis, and America’s underlying support of clean drinking water resulted in a slow, but significant policy response.

As Flint demonstrated, there are many sources of support for a clean environment in this country. States will not be alone in their fight. Mayors and the heads of large American corporations, universities, hospitals and other organizations are quietly continuing to pursue their sustainability agendas. NYU’s Energy Impact Center has received funding from Mike Bloomberg’s foundation.

The public understands the connection of pollution to their health. The same parents who now look at the ingredients on the cereal box before they feed it to their children, care about the quality of the water they drink and the quality of the air that they breathe. They want to know what ingredients are added to the air and water their children consume. It is not always easy to connect the machinations of government policy to those realities on the ground, but they can be made. Support for environmental protection is getting stronger in the Trump era as the public focuses attention on crucial protections now under threat. Mayors and governors are starting to feel that political pressure, and state resistance to Trump’s environmental agenda will continue to intensify.

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Nicole Prothro
Nicole Prothro
6 years ago

We need to stand strong together on this matter. It’s more important than ever!