Holding the Line Against Trump in the Golden State

With a new series of bills, California promises to protect the environment no matter what happens on the federal level.
Big Sur, California

Ryan Tuttle/Stocksy

While the Trump administration slams the brakes on environmental progress—attacking everything from public health to mass transit with regulation rollbacks and budget cuts—California is keeping its foot on the pedal. In February, the state unveiled a landmark series of bills that push back hard against protection-ending federal measures.

The centerpiece of the Preserve California package is Senate Bill 49, introduced by Senator Kevin de León. The bill would keep existing federal environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, in force throughout the state even if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ceases to enforce them. “We’ve all recognized that the Trump administration is taking aim at a lot of these protections,” says Kate Poole, senior attorney with NRDC’s Water program, who helped draft and advance the legislation along with David Pettit, senior attorney with NRDC’s Southern California Air program.

The legislative package also includes a bill meant to discourage the transfer of public lands to private developers (SB 50) and another that would protect California whistleblowers—who might, say, expose government negligence in upholding environmental safeguards—from losing their professional licenses (SB 51).

If it passes, SB 49 would ensure that shortsighted federal rollbacks do not endanger the long-term health of California residents. For instance, Pettit says, if the EPA ever decided to weaken the national ozone standard to 100 parts per million, California would maintain the current federal standard of 70 parts per million. That would protect residents from the damaging effects of ozone exposure, which can include shortness of breath, asthma attacks, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

High air-quality standards are “making the air that we breathe cleaner so children and the elderly don’t end up spending much more money in emergency rooms,” says Kip Lipper, a California state senate staffer who is working on SB 49. Similarly, upholding regulations that protect streams and wetlands from pollution—rules also under attack by the Trump administration—would yield safer drinking water for millions of Californians who rely on public systems fed by seasonal, rain-dependent waterways.

A California condor

Flickr

Iconic California wildlife species would benefit, too. For example, the southwestern willow flycatcher and the leatherback sea turtle have long relied on federal protections to thrive, and the comeback of the California condor, our continent’s largest bird, remains one of the Endangered Species Act’s most impressive success stories. The state’s new legislation would guarantee that endangered condors and other creatures remain protected within California even if Congress succeeds in gutting the Endangered Species Act.

California has a strong record of opposing federal efforts to dismantle environmental standards, Pettit points out. Back in 2003, the George W. Bush administration loosened clean air laws, overhauling regulations that required utility companies to install new pollution control devices in their plants when making other improvements. That same year, California lawmakers passed State Bill 288, the Protect California Air Act, which was designed to keep pre-2003 air-quality standards in place, maintaining limits on industrial air toxins regardless of what happened on the federal level. That kind of response helped lay the groundwork for legislation like SB 49.

These days, California is setting an example for other states that want to counter environmental threats in a challenging political climate. “The basic principle is one that travels easily—let’s not let the federal government take away the protections we enjoy,” Pettit says.

Limekiln State Park, California

Kevin Russ/Stocksy

California already has many of its own environmental protection laws, putting it in a relatively strong position at present. Its Clean Cars Program, for example, requires that the auto industry maintain stricter fuel economy standards compared with federal regulations, and 12 other states plus Washington, D.C., have followed California’s lead. But Poole cautions that other states won’t be able to just adopt the new California legislation wholesale. States that depend more heavily on existing federal environmental standards may need to develop their own legislation to maintain current standards if the rollbacks proceed. “There will be differences in the way each state approaches it,” Poole says. “Some states may need to start a little more from scratch.”

Lawmakers and staffers behind SB 49 hope to see it pass before the current legislative session ends in September. If all goes as planned, Lipper estimates the bill will move through the California state senate this spring. From there, the state assembly will need to pass it before it heads to Governor Jerry Brown’s desk for signature

But the bill’s passage isn’t yet a foregone conclusion. Powerful groups rejecting it include the California Chamber of Commerce, which has lambasted SB 49 as a “job killer.” “The business lobby is lining up in opposition, even though it has lived with most of these standards and complied with them,” Lipper says. California could also face related challenges to some of its air-quality and fuel economy standards from the federal government—a fight already begun under EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

Given the expected pushback against the Preserve California package, Pettit advises environmentally conscious California residents to speak out on its behalf at community meetings and town halls. “This is an opportunity for grassroots organizing and participation in the legislative process. People can show up and make their voices heard.” To counter the economic arguments of the business lobby, citizens might point out that state and federal standards have avoided hundreds of billions of dollars in health-related costs.

While the bills may undergo minor changes as they move through the legislature, the state leaders’ overarching goal will remain the same: to cement California’s decades-long commitment to clean air, clean water, and thriving ecosystems. And in a state that is increasingly a national model for resisting Trump’s pro-polluter agenda, that commitment takes on an added significance. “We’re not going to go backwards,” Lipper says. “California’s environmental legacy is one of constant progress.”

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