California Legislators Gird up Their Laws

Democratic lawmakers in California have announced their intention to guard against federal interference in the state’s environmental and worker protection laws. On air quality, water, endangered species, and worker safety, they’ve introduced three bills that would empower state agencies to enforce the standards in place now.

The laws are necessary, said De León at a press conference this morning, because “the Trump administration has launched an attack on science,” the likes of which “we have never witnessed before.”

Environmental groups are encouraged by them. The suite of laws, says David Pettit, senior attorney at the Natural Resource Defense Council, “will protect the state from attacks on environmental and worker protections from Washington, D.C., and ensure that existing federal standards on which the state relies can be maintained even if the federal government rolls back and weakens those standards.”

The first, Senate Bill 49, brought by Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De León (D., Los Angeles), holds the line on environmental, public health and worker protections, forbidding the state from falling below federal standards that were in place before President Trump took office. The second, SB 50, by Sen. Ben Allen (D., Santa Monica), establishes a state policy to discourage sales of federally owned public land to private developers, with a requirement that the land be offered to the state first; a third, SB 51, by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D., Santa Barbara), preserves the rights of federally employed scientists to speak with impunity, even as whistleblowers, and protects their scientific data.

Pettit says other states worried about the EPA’s policy direction could adopt a similar strategy. But whether California or any state genuinely has the power to block federal regulatory aggression remains unclear—even to De León, who reminded his audience that the state had retained “the former top lawyer in the nation,” former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

“It’s my hope that we don’t get into a legal battle with the EPA, and the federal government and the Congress,” De León said. But he couldn’t rule it out. If the legislature passes the three laws and Governor Jerry Brown signs them, their eventual success, De León said, could be measured by the number of times the state invokes Holder’s assistance.

California has a long history of setting its own environmental standards, some of which predate federal action to protect air and water. There are signs, though, that the Trump administration may be re-examining California’s freedom to establish at least some of its own pollution limits.

One of the more ominous moments in the January 18 confirmation of hearing of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt came when California’s new U.S. Senator, Kamala Harris, asked the nominee about California’s tailpipe emissions law for greenhouse gases. California was granted a “waiver” under Obama to establish limits where none existed at the federal level (the Bush administration denied it the previous year). Harris asked whether that waiver would stay in force:

Senator Harris: Do you agree to uphold that same standard that has been held by your previous administrators?
Mr. Pruitt: I agree to review that as each administrator before me has. It has been granted at times and denied at times.
Senator Harris: Do you agree to uphold it? Reviewing and upholding are two different points.
Mr. Pruitt: Senator, as you know, administrators in the past have not granted the waiver and in fact have granted the waiver. That is a review process that will be conducted if confirmed.
Senator Harris: What is your intention, sir?
Mr. Pruitt: I don’t know without going through the process to determine that, Senator, and one would not want to presume the outcome.

We’ll be watching that outcome closely.

Columnar basalt in Devil’s Postpile National Monument, Madera County, California. By David Seibold on Flickr, Creative Commons license.

 

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