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Science & Environment

California AG Discusses Fuel Standards Fight With Trump Administration


For decades, California has had a powerful tool in its fight against air pollution.


That's the authority to set its own rules for auto emissions - rules that 13 other states currently follow. But the Trump administration says there is no reason California should have this ability. And by revoking the state's authority to set these rules, President Trump argues that cars will become cheaper and safer for everyone and create more jobs.

CORNISH: Now, this sets up the latest of many legal fights over the environment between California and the Trump administration. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra says the state is ready for it.

XAVIER BECERRA: We, like them, have looked at the law and the facts and know that what they're trying to do would be a violation of the law.

CORNISH: You know, one of the things the president tried to argue on Twitter today is that he said that there wouldn't be much of a difference between the California standard and the new U.S. standard. And he's also trying to make the argument that somehow this would make cars safer and less expensive because they would be produced more cheaply under a uniform standard.

BECERRA: Well, if you don't believe that climate change is real, then of course you could say that. But the wildfires and droughts, the floods and mudslides, the superstorms...

CORNISH: So to start, for you, the California standard and the U.S. standard are too far apart.

BECERRA: The California standard and the U.S. standard are the same. And the Trump administration is trying to backslide from those standards. They're also trying to tell California that we can't continue to do what we've done for nearly five decades. And that is, to do what we must for our state to make sure we're cleaning our air.

CORNISH: The EPA administrator, Andrew Wheeler, has said federalism does not mean that one state can dictate standards for the nation. Can you make the case why California should and not just a case based on historical precedent?

BECERRA: We're moving the way Congress permitted us to move. The Clean Air Act provides for this waiver authority. The consequences have been great for everyone in that not only have we been able to keep California cleaner when it comes to our air, but the rest of the nation has also benefited with cleaner cars, cleaner air and the kind of economy and health care system that allows us to let our people live longer.

CORNISH: Back in July, the state made a deal with vehicle manufacturers on fuel economy standards and the administration says they think that might be illegal. The Department of Justice has launched an antitrust investigation into this deal - is an example of antitrust violations?

BECERRA: The word that comes to mind is ludicrous, and it's unfortunate because the American public is being treated to the type of circus that comes when you use the weight of the Oval Office to try to threaten an industry to do what you want them to do, even though they're signaling clearly that they want to move in a different direction.

CORNISH: After the announcement from the White House, have you heard from auto manufacturers? Are they going to stick with you?

BECERRA: The interesting thing is you haven't heard the auto manufacturers saying anything about being with the president. There is not an auto manufacturer that I know of that has publicly articulated a position in line with the Trump administration.

CORNISH: So right now, you're taking that silence as a kind of tacit support.

BECERRA: I think the Trump administration recognizes that that silence is a clear sign that industry is hoping that the Trump administration will pull back before we dive into this precipice. Because the industry understands that its ability to prosper requires us to be able to move together towards cleaner burning vehicles.

CORNISH: The state has sued the Trump administration, I think, more than two dozen times on environmental issues alone. And you say that you will be challenging this one in court. Say you lose...

BECERRA: We don't say we'll lose. We've seen this movie before. It was a B-rated movie the first time. Administration tried to sue to stop us from moving forward, and we won. We have the facts, the science and the law behind California's efforts. It's the Trump administration that continues to delay its release of its proposal, one, because I think they realize they can't square the facts, the science and the law behind what they're trying to do. So we feel pretty confident that not just the law but the entire American public wants us to move towards cleaner burning vehicles.

CORNISH: If this is tangled up legally, what does that mean for your attempt to move quickly on this issue?

BECERRA: We're going to keep moving. We're not stopping. The authority right now is for California to try to clean its air. There's no legal authority. There's no legal order telling us not to. It's the administration that's trying to put the brakes on this progress. We're not going to backslide. And so we will continue moving forward.

CORNISH: Have you heard from any of the other states that had planned on joining you in similar standards?

BECERRA: We've had some great partners throughout the country on this, and they are ready to go as we are. And...

CORNISH: So that was 13 states and the District of Columbia. You're saying they were going to join you in a legal challenge to this.

BECERRA: We have our partners ready to go with us.

CORNISH: That's California's Democratic attorney general, Xavier Becerra. Thank you for speaking with us.

BECERRA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.