(Bloomberg) -- Jerry Brown is running out of time.
The four-term California governor spent decades building up an environmental legacy that, he hoped, would keep the state’s air clean and help save the world from a catastrophic rise in temperatures long after he’d left office. Instead, in his final months in office, Brown’s found himself fighting tooth and nail against the Trump administration to keep it all from unraveling.
On Tuesday, he led California, 16 other states and the District of Columbia into court to battle the Trump administration over the most aggressive fuel efficiency standards the federal government had ever imposed. California and the Obama administration worked hand in hand for years to craft the regulations only to have Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency chief, Scott Pruitt, threaten to dismantle them.
“Trump is going after the core of California’s identity,” said Cara Horowitz, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. “California sees itself correctly as having done some of the best work in the world in reducing air pollution. What’s at stake is our continued ability to be a leader in this field.”
Indeed, to Brown -- nicknamed “Governor Moonbeam” in the 1970s for his progressive and idealistic policies -- this isn’t just about his environmental legacy. Or California’s green agenda. Or even the Golden State being a leader in the fight against climate change. Before his time’s up in January, Brown’s dead-set on winning a battle over the fate of America.
“It’s a battle not only for the soul of America but the future of America,” he said at a Sacramento press conference announcing the multi-state lawsuit Tuesday. He was flanked by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols as he defined the tailpipe fight as one front in a broader battle against Trump.
“The conflict is sharpening,” said Brown, 80, a Democrat. Trump “wants to do things that we think are profoundly dangerous and not in the interest of California, the American people. So we’re doing what we can in a free society to stop a juggernaut.”
When Brown first served as governor in the 1970s, pollution in California was so bad that millions of Californians couldn’t see the mountain tops just a few miles from their homes and Los Angeles was choking on smog. Three decades later, there’s less pollution in the state; the smog has lessened; and the state’s established both the most aggressive fuel standard and the only economy-wide program to curb greenhouse-gas emissions in the nation.
On seemingly every front, the Trump administration’s agenda has undermined California’s efforts. It’s weakening the state’s bid for more renewable energy by imposing import tariffs on solar equipment made abroad. It’s vowed to do away with another Obama-era policy that called for drastic cuts to carbon emissions from electricity generation. Environmental policies aside, Trump used his first trip to the state as president in March to rail against California’s resistance to his immigration crackdown.
And to add insult to injury in the latest -- and perhaps most heated -- fight of them all, the Trump administration is considering whether to get rid of California’s unique authority to set its own vehicle efficiency standards. A final decision on that has not yet been made, according to people familiar with the matter, asking not to be identified because the deliberations are private.
Rolling back federal policy is one thing. Trying to revoke California’s authority to regulate emissions within its own borders would turn the clash between Trump and the nation’s most populous state into a full-out political and legal war. Using references from the Bible, Brown fired a warning shot on Tuesday, saying he’s still got fight left in him.
“Remember that saying in the gospels? The evil of the day is sufficient there of,” he told reporters Tuesday. “We have an evil here. We’re fighting it. Will there be more evils? Most certainly. And we’ll attack them as they show their ugly head.”
Some conservatives see this fight with California as helping Trump in the November elections.
“Just think what Midwestern Senate Democrats will do when Trump starts tweeting, ‘Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer want to tell you what cars to drive,’ ” said Lou Pugliaresi, president of the nonprofit Energy Policy Research Foundation Inc. in Washington.
Brown has been just as aggressive as Trump, saying the administration is “full of liars.” And he has plenty of support at home. In a poll last year conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California, almost three-quarters of California adults said they favor the state’s legislative mandate to cut carbon-dioxide emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.
California has already sued the EPA 10 times in the 15 months since Trump’s inauguration, over disputes ranging from hazardous air pollutants to oil exploration and fracking. In all, the state has sued the administration 32 times in that period.
The latest suit against the EPA was prompted by Pruitt signaling the Trump administration’s intent to unravel a fuel standard that’d have new cars averaging more than 50 miles a gallon by 2025. His announcement triggered both political and environmental concerns in the deeply blue, deeply regulated western state.
The EPA declined to comment on the lawsuit Tuesday, saying it doesn’t discuss pending litigation.
“California is playing defense,” said Severin Borenstein, a business professor at the University of California at Berkeley. It’s “trying to slow down the process with the hope that the 2018 elections will take away some of Trump’s power.”
In the meantime, Horowitz, at the University of California at Los Angeles, said she worries that Trump could cut staffing at the EPA while at the same time attacking the ability of states like California to pick up the slack. And Dan Sperling, a transportation professor at the University of California at Davis, warned that Trump’s tailpipe rollback could put U.S. automakers at a disadvantage to overseas competitors.
“You’re going to back off from investing in the most advanced technologies just at the time the European and Chinese companies have their pedal to the floor,” said Sperling, who also is a member of the state’s Air Resources Board. “The U.S. is on the verge of ceding its leadership in the global auto industry.”
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