Efforts to rein in planet-warming pollution in Washington state could be hindered by federal officials once Donald Trump becomes president.
At his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, Trump's pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, declined to say whether he would let individual states, led by California, continue to require cleaner cars.
Only California, which began regulating vehicle emissions before there was a federal Clean Air Act, has the authority to require less-polluting cars than federal standards do. To do so, it has to apply for a waiver from the EPA.
Washington and Oregon are among the 12 states that have adopted California's stricter vehicle-emission standards.
"We’re totally dependent on somebody else to set vehicle emission standards," Stu Clark with the Washington Department of Ecology said. "At times, California’s been way in front of the federal government."
Motor vehicles are Washington state's largest source of carbon emissions.
"EPA has historically recognized California's authority to issue new motor vehicle pollution standards that go above and beyond federal standards," Sen. Kamala Harris (D-California) told Pruitt at his confirmation hearing. "Will you commit then to upholding that same standard in recognizing California's authority to issue its own new motor vehicle standards?"
Pruitt, who as Oklahoma's attorney general has sued to block EPA regulations more than a dozen times, often in the name of states' rights, said he would review the current two-tiered approach rather than uphold it.
Harris didn't like that answer.
"Reviewing and upholding are two different points," she said. "What is your intention, sir?"
"I don't know without going through the process to determine that, Senator, and would not want to presume the outcome," Pruitt replied.
Over the past 40 years, the EPA has granted California more than 50 waivers to restrict pollution from motor vehicles under the Clean Air Act. In December 2007, President George W. Bush's EPA administrator denied California's request for a waiver to clamp down on vehicle emissions. It was granted the next summer by the Obama administration.
Shortly after last November's election, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers asked President-elect Donald Trump to loosen pollution regulations on motor vehicles and standardize them nationwide.
Climate advocates hope that states and cities will take action for the climate even if the federal government shifts away from controlling pollution from vehicles and power plants. Yet a Trump administration, in tandem with a Republican-controlled Congress, could do more than shift its own regulations: It could also preempt climate action at lower levels of government, with California's vehicle-emission standards only one example.
“They’d have to change the law to eliminate California’s ability to create its own standards,” Clark said.
In December, Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) introduced a bill he calls the "Energy Efficiency Free Market Act." It would repeal and prohibit energy-efficiency standards for home appliances at both federal and state levels. By reducing energy use, such standards reduce climate-altering pollution from power plants and natural gas combustion.
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