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To understand California’s climate-change challenge, look no further than its popular ride-hailing companies.

Uber, Lyft and other companies make up a tiny piece of the biggest greenhouse-gas polluter in the state: transportation. Yet their contribution to climate-warming emissions is outsized, drawing attention from researchers and lawmakers and raising an ambitious question: How can the state rein in emissions from gig economy companies built on drivers who own their vehicles?

The latest strike against Uber and Lyft comes from the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group that published a report in late February showing ride-hailing trips release 69 percent more climate-warming emissions than the walking, biking, transit and other car trips they displace. The findings support California’s own analysis, which concluded ride-hailing increases carbon dioxide pollution by 50 percent for every mile a passenger travels, compared to when they drive themselves.

The state took action in 2018, passing a first-of-its-kind law to curb that carbon pollution. It tasked the California Air Resources Board with setting targets to increase electric-vehicle miles within ride-hailing companies and to cut carbon dioxide for every mile a ride-hailing passenger travels. The California Public Utilities Commission must then enforce those rules when they take effect, which is slated for 2023.

California’s cars, trucks, planes and trains produce about 40 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. Ride-hailing makes up a small fraction of that, accounting for 1.2 percent of the miles Californians travel by car. Still, the issue illustrates a much bigger challenge, said Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis and a member of California’s air board.

“In some cases, we’re picking on them, with laws and rules like this. But on the other hand, it’s kind of a first step towards doing good, sustainable transportation policy,” Sperling told CalMatters. “They’re the guinea pigs.”


Why Is California Regulating Ride-Hailing?

Ride-hailing vehicles don’t pollute more than the rest of the cars in the state, but the distance they travel between rides makes them a problem, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists and the air board.

In fact, the ride-hailing fleet is more fuel-efficient on average, since it tends to consist of newer cars, more hybrids and more passenger cars rather than light trucks, according to a December report from the Air Resources Board.

While travelers driving themselves tend to go directly to a location, those working for ride-hailing companies drive extra miles between ride requests, or on the way to pick up a passenger. Those extra miles—when the driver is alone in the car—are called “deadhead miles,” and they make up almost 40 percent of the distance driven by ride-hailing vehicles.

For some drivers, that number is even greater.

“I’m a part-time driver, and I only drive during high demand times, like Friday night, right? And still, I would say that I have about a 50 or 60 percent occupancy rate,” said Nicole Moore, a Lyft driver and organizer with Rideshare Drivers United. “On a Friday night in the middle of Hollywood, I’ll have an empty car for like half an hour. Then I’ll get a 10-minute ride, and that’s it.”

Though ride-hailing makes up a small fraction of all California car miles, its impact is visible. Ride-hailing alone is responsible for about half of San Francisco’s rise in traffic congestion from 2010 to 2016, according to the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. And it’s growing—while rides with taxis, ride-hailing and car-sharing make up less than 5 percent of vehicle miles traveled globally today, that number could be 19 percent by 2040, a report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance projected.

“We know that that sector is growing,” said Joshua Cunningham, branch chief of advanced clean cars at the Air Resources Board. “Putting in a regulation to start controlling those emissions is really important.”


Setting Statewide Goals

That’s where the law requiring the air board to set carbon dioxide and electrification standards for ride-hailing fleets comes in. Authored by Democratic state Sen. Nancy Skinner of Berkeley, it also tasks the California Public Utilities Commission with enforcing the rules and requires the ride-hailing companies to figure out how to meet them.

“We’re serious about our environmental impact,” Uber representative Austin Heyworth said at a recent air board meeting, where he expressed Uber’s support for the law and the air board’s efforts. Lyft, in a statement, said it is “striving to make every ride 100 percent electric over time.”

Others, however, are pushing a more ambitious strategy: electrify within the decade.

Environmental groups including the Union of Concerned Scientists and Sierra Club California urged the board at a January 23 meeting to evaluate what it would take to fully electrify ride-hailing fleets by 2030. The board directed staff to look into it.

Achieving zero-emission fleets, however, could be complicated in the gig economy. Because drivers typically own the vehicles they use, “fleet costsfall directly on the driver—gas, electricity, maintenance, everything and the cost of the vehicle,” said part-time Lyft driver Moore. Ride-hailing companies will have to curb emissions from cars they don’t even own.

It’s not the first time California’s heard this full-electrification idea. An early version of the 2018 bill included a requirement that ride-hailing companies shift to all zero-emission vehicles by 2030. Uber and Lyftlobbied successfully to remove it, citing concerns that low-income drivers would not be able to afford an electric vehicle, according to Streetsblog California.

Skinner said she wants to see the board take bold action in setting standards that will help clean California’s air and combat climate change.

“I want them to set the most ambitious goals possible and feasible,” Skinner said.

Still, air board staffer Cunningham called 100 percent electrification an “aggressive target.” While Cunningham was reluctant to speculate about the staff’s final assessment, he said in an email to CalMatters, “it is unlikely staff will determine that 100 percent electrification in 2030 is feasible.”


What’s Next?

Electrification is not the only way to decrease ride-hailing emissions. The Union of Concerned Scientists’ report also advocates for increasing shared rides and incentivizing trips that connect to public transit or bike or scooter shares.

Promoting connections to public transit is something the California Air Resources Board already is talking about. One idea is to reward ride-hailing companies for voluntarily connecting to transit or other low-carbon forms of transportation, like scooters or bikes, by giving them “regulatory credits” that count toward their emissions requirements, Cunningham said.

Gregory Erhardt, assistant professor at the University of Kentucky, said there are “a lot of good reasons to be skeptical” of the notion that ride-hailing benefits public transit, however. Erhardt, who has studied public transportation ridership, said ride-hailing discourages commuters from using public transit and fills the road with more cars.

After hitting a peak in 2014, transit ridership in the United States began to decline. “Now, that drop-off is strange, because this is during a period in which the economy is strong; there are more jobs; and it’s during a period in which transit agencies are really expanding their service,” Erhardt said. “We would expect ridership to be going up and not down.”

Ride-hailing may have played a part: Erhardt found that public-transit ridership decreased when ride-hailing was introduced to an area, according to a study published in 2019. (A recent uptick in national transit ridership can be attributed to isolated growth in the New York City and Washington, D.C., regions, but even there, the cities didn’t beat their record high numbers.)

While the Union of Concerned Scientists study concedes that “today, ride-hailing competes with and draws riders away from mass transit,” it argues that the companies could promote connections to it. In some areas, Lyft and Uber provide information in apps about public-transit options, and in Denver, travelers can pay for public-transit rides through the Uber app, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists report.

Erhardt said the new report offered “promising paths forward.” To make these happen, however, the companies likely will need a push. In California, as the Air Resources Board crafts its regulation, the coming year will determine just how far the state will go to address the climate impact of ride-hailing.

“There’s not an incentive, without that regulatory push,” Erhardt said. “That’s the sort of lever that we need to incentivize people to change their behavior, both the companies and the travelers.”


‘You Have to Pull Drivers Up’

Don Anair, research and deputy director of the clean vehicles program with the Union of Concerned Scientists and co-author of the recent report, said the responsibility to address ride-hailing emissions “squarely falls on the companies.” Even though they do not own the fleet vehicles, Uber and Lyft could incentivize drivers to buy or lease electric cars, he said. He also suggested the companies encourage pooled rides by adjusting prices so more passengers want to share a trip.

Some ride-hailing companies already are experimenting with initiatives to make zero-emission vehicles more available to drivers. Last year, Lyft launched an electric-vehicle rental program for drivers in Denver with a fleet of electric Kias. Rental prices increase with distance driven, starting at $230 a week.

Part-time Lyft driver Moore called these rental programs the “indentured servitude of the rideshare” because of how long it takes to earn enough money to pay off the rental fee. Representatives for Lyft and the Union of Concerned Scientists told CalMatters these rental programs could lower barriers to driving cleaner cars.

With time, the price of electric vehicles will go down, Anair said, and more used electric vehicles will enter the market. But right now, the steep up-front cost makes them unaffordable for some drivers, even though maintenance and fuel generally are cheaper than for gasoline vehicles.

That’s why Moore said that focusing solely on the cars won’t be enough. Moore drives a hybrid now, and it’s the first new car she’s ever bought. If she had to buy an electric vehicle, she “would have to quit driving and find another way to pay the bills,” Moore said. “You have to pull drivers up at the same time you pull standards up for their cars.”

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

Starting immediately, California state agencies will no longer buy gas-powered sedans, officials said Friday—and starting in January, the state will stop purchasing vehicles from carmakers that haven’t agreed to follow California’s clean-car rules.

The decision affects General Motors, Fiat Chrysler, Toyota and multiple other automakers that sided with the Trump administration in the ongoing battle over tailpipe-pollution rules. The policy will hit General Motors particularly hard; California spent more than $27 million on passenger vehicles from GM-owned Chevrolet in 2018.

California’s Department of General Services, the state’s business manager that oversees vehicle purchases for California’s fleet, announced the bans on Friday afternoon. The immediate ban on state purchases of cars powered only by gas will include exceptions for public-safety vehicles. 

“The state is finally making the smart move away from internal-combustion engine sedans,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement emailed to CalMatters. The new policies align with Newsom’s September executive order urging the state government to reduce greenhouse gases. “Carmakers that have chosen to be on the wrong side of history will be on the losing end of California’s buying power,” Newsom said.

It’s the latest volley in the fight over climate-changing pollution from cars and trucks. “It certainly sends a strong message to the automakers that have come out on the other side of California in this litigation,” said Julia Stein, supervising attorney at UCLA’s Frank G. Wells Environmental Law Clinic. “It’s taking steps to encourage automakers to be on what it views as the right side of that dispute.”

The Trump administration has long proposed rolling back Obama-era standards curbing greenhouse gases and increasing fuel economy of passenger vehicles. Those rollbacks have yet to be finalized, but in September, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration stripped California’s authority to make its own greenhouse gas rules—rules that 13 other states and the District of Columbia follow.

The move kicked off what’s likely to become a lengthy court battle—and, indeed, California and 22 states sued the EPA this month, after suing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in September.

To fend off the uncertainty of a long fight in court, four major automakers—Ford, Honda, BMW, and Volkswagen—cut a deal with California. California agreed to relax the Obama-era greenhouse-gas targets somewhat, and the carmakers agreed to follow the state’s rules.

Earlier this year, California officials indicated they were optimistic that more carmakers would sign on. But amid growing pressure from the White House, two auto-industry trade groups representing more than a dozen auto manufacturers including General Motors, Fiat Chrysler, and Toyota aligned themselves with the Trump administration by calling for a single set of clean-car standards nationwide.

Now California’s Department of General Services is crafting policy that will prohibit state purchases from carmakers that haven’t signed on to its clean-car deal—and manufacturers could stand to lose millions in sales to the state. In addition to the $27 million in purchases from Chevrolet, the state also spent more than $11 million on Fiat Chrysler brands, and more than $3.6 million on Toyota. Toyota, well-known for its environmentally friendly Prius, is also facing public backlash for its alliance with the Trump administration. 

The move might deepen the divide in an already fracturing auto industry, Stein speculates. “There’s already been a little bit of a wedge driven,” she said. “You could see something like this driving the wedge even further.”

Gloria Bergquist, vice president of the Auto Alliance trade group that represents both automakers that signed on with California’s clean-car deal and companies that sided with the Trump administration, said automakers have invested heavily in electrified vehicles. “So we support efforts by fleet managers to buy more of these vehicles,” she said in an email. “As consumers see more electrified vehicles on the roadways, we hope to see a tipping point where they become more mainstream.”

This isn’t the first time that California has hinted it would use its power as the world’s fifth largest economy to reward carmakers that followed its rules, and punish those that didn’t. In remarks written for a May workshop, California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols warned that federal tailpipe emissions rollbacks could force “an outright ban on internal-combustion engines.”

More recently, CalMatters discovered that legislation written in September would weaponize the state’s clean-car rebates by restricting them to only the carmakers that signed on to California’s deal. The bill didn’t receive a vote, but its language urging the state to spurn “companies that are not helping to achieve the state’s public health and climate goals” foreshadowed Newsom’s comments today: “In court, and in the marketplace, California is standing up to those who put short-term profits ahead of our health and our future.”

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

Commuters in California may not have to worry about federal threats to yank highway funding just yet—but the recent tiff with the feds over California’s clean air plans is bigger than a simple paper-shuffling standoff.

The fight started with a two-page missive from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler. Sent in September, the letter accused California of what the EPA called a “backlog” of federally required paperwork detailing the state’s plans and policies to cut air pollution. The EPA threatened to level sanctions at the state, including withholding federal highway funds, if California did not withdraw plans that the federal government considered “unapprovable.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom called it retaliation, a “brazen political stunt.” In response, EPA spokesman Michael Abboud told CalMatters in an emailed statement: “Highlighting that California has the worst air quality in the nation along with other serious environmental problems is not a political issue.”

Then last week, California’s head air quality enforcer, Mary Nichols, responded to the EPA, saying that highway sanctions typically take more than 18 months to mete out, and in any case, the backlog is on the EPA’s end, not California’s. “Indeed,” she wrote, “you may not have been aware in writing your letter, (the California Air Resources Board) has been helping U.S. EPA to resolve its administrative backlog for years.”

The EPA’s Abboud told CalMatters it is reviewing Nichols’ letter, and reiterated that the agency is asking California to withdraw any plans to cut air pollution that can’t be approved, writing: “Every state must comply with the federal air-quality standards. California is not alone or unique in this requirement.”

There’s more to the story than California trading barbs with the feds, according to University of California, Los Angeles, environmental law professor Ann Carlson. “This is (the) EPA being willing to play very fast and loose with the facts in order to push the president’s agenda.”

So what are the facts? And how will this affect you?

What’s the paperwork California and EPA are fighting about?

Thanks to California’s 39-million-plus people, its pollution-trapping terrain, and the sunny conditions primed for stewing tailpipe emissions into smog, the state has historically bad air quality.

About 93 percent of Californians live in areas that don’t meet federal targets for air pollutants like ozone, the major component of smog, or tiny particles of pollution. California and its patchwork of local air districts are required to come up with something called a State Implementation Plan, or SIP, describing how the state intends to cut air pollution.

Those SIP submissions are piling up at the EPA—more than 130 of them, according to Wheeler’s letter. Why so many? Because “SIP” can refer to both the overarching roadmap for hitting federal clean air targets, and the collection of rules and regulations needed to get there.

That roadmap and the piecemeal trickle of local and statewide policies all end up at the California air board for approval,and for ultimate submission to the EPA. The EPA then has 18 months to decide whether to approve the submissions—which would make the regulation enforceable at the federal level, too, according to Kurt Karperos, deputy executive officer of the Air Resources Board.

In the meantime, the air board and air districts typically start implementing the regulations.“To the extent we can, we do not wait for EPA to act,” Karperos said. “The challenge is too great in California for us to sit around and wait for EPA.”

Can the EPA really take away California’s highway funding?

Federal and state officials agree on this much: If the air pollution dispute winds its way to federal-funding sanctions, Californians can expect to see restrictions on how the state uses certain federal transportation funding. That may affect specific highway projects, but it is too early to know.

Still, experts say that sanctions, if it comes to that, will take a while. “Even though it’s a big headline, and he’s threatening our money, we have time to work through those issues,” said Tanisha Taylor, director of sustainability at the California Association of Councils of Governments, at a recent workshop.

Once the EPA formally notifies a state that its SIP is missing or inadequate, an 18-month clock starts ticking before the EPA can impose sanctions, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service says. Those sanctions typically start with crackdowns on pollution from sources like heavy industry, according to a Federal Highway Administration webpage. It then takes another six months for sanctions to escalate to highway funding.

Rather than threatening sanctions that couldn’t hit until at least 2021, Karperos said, “Focusing on fixing and clearing out the backlog—EPA’s backlog—would have been a much more productive (use) of everybody’s time.”

So if sanctions are a distant threat, what’s the big deal?

The concern is that partisan politicking is replacing a science-based, collaborative federal and state effort to reduce California’s very real pollution problems.

Nichols called the threat of sanctions “an abuse of U.S. EPA authority” in the letter she sent last week. The next day, nearly 600 former EPA employees sent their own letter urging Congress to investigate whether the EPA’s correspondence with California—including a second missive about homelessness and water quality—constituted retaliation against the state.

When asked whether the White House was involved in drafting or motivating the EPA’s letter about the backlog, Abboud said: “No.”

It’s one part of a bigger picture, said UCLA’s Carlson—one that shows the EPA repeatedly taking aim at California. She pointed to the antitrust investigation launched by the Department of Justice after California reached a tailpipe-emissions agreement with four auto companies. And just days before the EPA sent its two letters, the Trump administration finalized a rule to strip California of its power to police tailpipe pollution on its own terms—a move that will end California’s zero-emission vehicle program intended to combat both air pollution and climate change.

Wheeler’s letter, Carlson said, “Is so hypocritical at a time when EPA is trying to remove from California the authority that it needs to come into compliance with air quality standards.”

In its emailed response to CalMatters, the EPA’s Abboud said, “The Federal government has done nothing to bar California to set health-based pollutant standards, and we are ready to assist California in improving the air quality in their state.”

The air board’s Karperos worries that this very public battle with the EPA is, in fact, a distraction from doing exactly that: cleaning up California’s air.

“Rather than threatening to withhold highway money over an administrative issue that we’re working to clear up, it’s much more important for U.S. EPA to be thinking about what it needs to do to clean up trains, which they regulate,” he said, listing other polluters the EPA is largely responsible for: planes, ships and certain off-road vehicles like construction equipment.

Nichols’ letter includes a graph showing that by 2030, these federally regulated polluters are expected to churn out more of a key smog ingredient than the cars, trucks and equipment California regulates across a major chunk of southern California.

The EPA did not respond to a CalMatters request for comment about Nichols’ concern that EPA is failing to reduce emissions from federally regulated sources. Abboud said only that “California has been granted Clean Air Act waivers for a wide variety of emissions from a wide variety of vehicle types,” and provided a link to a list. He also sent a link to a press release about air pollution trends, saying: “EPA and its state and local partners continue to see substantial reductions in emissions that contribute to ozone, particulate matter, and other criteria pollutants across the country.”

In the end, it isn’t about pointing fingers, Karperos said — it’s about keeping Californians healthy. “We may argue about backlogs, but it’s really about what’s in the air they’re breathing.”

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

The punch-counterpunch sparring between the Trump administration and the state of California over rollbacks of federal environmental regulations is often described as a war of words, with neither the president nor Gov. Jerry Brown giving an inch.

Some of the disputes are largely symbolic—foot-stamping gestures from Washington, D.C., designed to resonate with the president’s core supporters rather than to hold up in court.

But the latest skirmish is serious: The federal Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to unravel fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks not only threatens California’s autonomy in setting its own emissions limits; it also could derail the state’s ability to reach its future greenhouse-gas-reduction goals.

“This is a politically motivated effort to weaken clean-vehicle standards with no documentation, evidence or law to back up that decision,” said Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the state Air Resources Board, in a statement. “This is not a technical assessment; it is a move to demolish the nation’s clean-car program. The EPA’s action, if implemented, will worsen people’s health with degraded air quality and undermine regulatory certainty for automakers.”

The gauntlet was thrown down by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, a darling of the Trump administration for his zeal in dismantling Obama-era environmental regulations. Even though Pruitt is the target of multiple investigations for alleged ethical transgressions and has found his job security in question, the effect of his current decisions may resonate far beyond his or his boss’ terms in office.

“There have been some troubling developments,” said Deborah Sivas, director of the Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford Law School. “But I think a lot of this is ultimately not going to happen.”


Putting the Brakes on Fuel Efficiency

Sivas said an attack on the fuel-efficiency standard is one of the critical fights for California, which must drastically reduce emissions from the state’s enormous transportation sector to stay on track in cutting carbon.

At issue are miles-per-gallon standards set near the end of the Obama administration. They require an average 45.4 miles per gallon by 2022 and more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025. Standards differ by vehicle type and are stricter for cars than for SUVs and light trucks.

Chet France, the former EPA senior executive who directed the office that crafted the regulations, says the fuel-standard rule is solid. France, who retired in 2012, said the benchmarks were the product of rigorous technical research and vetting with federal agencies, the California air board and car manufacturers.

The rule was reviewed again during the last days of the Obama administration and determined to be reasonable.

“The mid-term review was thorough and found that advances in auto-industry technology meant that meeting the standards was easier and cheaper than the EPA had predicted,” France said. “It concluded that the standards were attainable, and, if anything, they could have gone further.”

Pruitt called the current regulations inappropriate, saying they “set the standards too high.” He said his agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would revisit them, but he has not yet announced any proposed changes.

In explaining its rationale, the EPA is expected to dust off a decades-old analysis that suggests lighter, more fuel-efficient cars are not substantial enough to withstand crashes and thus pose a danger to drivers. Federal and state crash tests disprove that, but Sivas said she anticipates similar arguments.

The state is pushing back hard. Brown, during a recent visit to Washington, told reporters that the rollback is “not going to happen, and the attempts to do this are going to be bogged down in litigation long after we have a new president.”

On Tuesday, May 1, California filed its 32nd lawsuit against the Trump administration, asserting that in preparing to change the emission standards, the EPA is violating the Clean Air Act and failing to follow its own regulations. In announcing the suit, which 17 other states have joined, Brown conjured images of floods and wildfires ravaging the state as greenhouse gases warm the planet.

“This is real stuff,” he said. “I intend to fight this as hard as I can.”

In addition to rolling back mileage requirements, Pruitt has signaled that he may revoke California’s legal authority to establish its own emissions standards, independent of federal benchmarks. A dozen other states have adopted California’s standards; together, that coalition represents more than a third of the national auto market.

“California is not the arbiter of these issues,” Pruitt said in television interview in March. While the state may set its own limits on greenhouse-gas emissions, he said, it “shouldn’t and can’t dictate to the rest of the country.”

California’s right to request a waiver from federal clean-air laws is well established and, legal experts say, the burden would be high for the administration to convince a court that there is a compelling reason to change the longstanding policy.

Pruitt told lawmakers in Washington, D.C., last week that his agency was engaged in talks with California officials regarding proposed changes.

California Air Resources Board spokesman Stanley Young said the state has had three meetings with the EPA since December, adding: “Nothing substantive was discussed, so I wouldn’t characterize them as negotiations.”

He said the board had not seen a final proposal, and no future meetings were scheduled.

On Friday, Nichols tweeted to Pruitt: “Call me.”


Opening the Coast to Drilling

Perhaps the most consequential of the administration’s many moves to expand domestic-energy production is the Interior Department’s five-year plan to offer lease sales in federal waters off the outer continental shelf, including parcels where drilling has been banned for decades. That includes the California coast.

The plan, announced by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, envisions drilling in the Arctic, off the Hawaiian coast and in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, as well as expanding existing exploration into the eastern Gulf of Mexico. The leasing is scheduled to begin in 2019 off the north coast of Alaska, and then move to the lower 48 states, the agency said.

Zinke said the leasing plans would expand the country’s energy independence. “This is the beginning of an opening up,” he said, promising that the months-long public-comment period before enactment would include all stakeholders. “The states will have a voice.”

Whose voice will be heeded may be another matter. Florida’s governor has already negotiated directly with President Donald Trump to exempt his state from leasing. Even though Brown had a conversation with administration officials relaying California’s wish to be included in a similar exemption, no announcement has been made that would prevent drilling in federal waters off the coast.

But this is one issue where the state may get its way, thanks to current market forces and a stubborn regulatory blockade.

The oil and gas industries have shown little interest in exploring off the California coast, and the State Lands Commission has resolved to make it much more difficult and expensive for companies to get crude oil to land and into pipelines.

The commission’s policy to prevent construction of onshore infrastructure does nothing to stop drilling but could limit the volume of oil shipped at a time when the low price per barrel is already discouraging new exploration.

Given those financial and logistical headaches, companies may take a pass.

“A state like California is going to put its full force and resources on the line,” said Timothy O’Connor, a California-based attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund. “There’s still an element of local and state control, and we are going to defend our values to their very core. That’s certainly one of them.”


Rolling Back Air Rules

California has notched two victories over the Trump administration’s efforts to undo a methane regulation instituted during Obama’s term.

The Waste Prevention Rule was to have gone into effect in January 2017, regulating emissions of natural gas leaking from more than 100,000 oil and gas wells on public lands across the country.

The federal Interior Department delayed enactment of the rule and was sued by California and New Mexico. The states prevailed. The agency then suspended part of the new rule and the two states sued again, winning in court once more.

The victory has significant impact in California, home to vast, aging oil fields and energy infrastructure. Methane’s potent heat-trapping capacity makes it many times more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. The state Air Resources Board recently limited methane coming from both new and existing oil and gas sources.

Another win came in a suit the state joined after the EPA postponed implementation of yet another Obama-era rule aimed at combating smog. The “Ozone Rule” reduced allowable concentrations of ozone, a main component of smog.

Pruitt ordered the EPA to extend the deadline to comply with the new standards by at least a year. Two days after California and 15 other states filed suit, Pruitt reversed his decision.

The state also won a suit calling for federal transportation officials to monitor greenhouse-gas emissions along national highways, but the government is considering repealing the regulations.

In another pending case, California and other states are suing the EPA to identify areas of the country with the most polluted air. In April, Trump weighed in, directing the EPA to relax restrictions on state governments and businesses that have been key to cutting smog.

In a memo, the president instructed Pruitt to expedite a review of state smog-reduction plans and streamline the process for businesses to get air-quality-related permits. In addition, Trump ordered a review of other air-quality regulations related to public health to determine whether they “should be revised or rescinded.”

The agency said the directive was aimed at trimming costs and maximizing efficiency.


Dropping Protection for Water

In an effort to more precisely define which bodies of water are covered under federal law, the Obama administration adopted a rule in 2015 that effectively expanded the number of protected waterways, including springs and floodplains that appear for only part of the year.

The idea was to safeguard both water quality and water quantity, and to put an end to the time-consuming practice of determining status on a case-by-case basis. The U.S. Supreme Court had already weighed in, but the high court’s definitions of the “waters of the United States” failed to provide adequate clarification.

The Obama administration’s definition-stretching rules were strenuously opposed by developers, who said they swept up much of the undeveloped land in California, including wetlands.

Soon after Trump came into office, the EPA launched a review of the rule, and then got rid of it.

In February, California sued the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which signs off on development permits in protected wetlands.

The legal case is still pending, but Sivas said the Trump administration is doing an end-run by requiring the Army Corps to run all permit requests through Washington, rather than making those determinations in regional offices.

By centralizing the decision-making, Sivas said, political appointees can circumvent scientific and legal analysis performed by field offices and determine the outcome based on other factors.

“My guess is they are going to say (to developers), ‘You don’t need a permit,’” she said.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

Beyond the devastation and personal tragedy of the fires that have ravaged California in recent months, another disaster looms: an alarming uptick in unhealthy air—and the sudden release of the carbon dioxide that drives climate change.

As millions of acres burn in a cycle of longer and more-intense fire seasons, the extensive efforts of industry and regulators to protect the environment can be partly undone in one firestorm. In particular, as raging blazes pump more carbon into the atmosphere, state officials are grappling with the potential effect on California’s ability to adequately reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

The state’s environmental regulations are known to be stringent, but they have limits: They apply only to human-caused emissions. Pollution generated by wildfires is all outside the grasp of state law.

“The kinds of fires we’re seeing now generate millions of tons of GHG emissions. This is significant,” said Dave Clegern, a spokesman for the state Air Resources Board, a regulatory body.

In less than one week, for example, October’s wine-country fires discharged harmful emissions equal to that of every car, truck and big rig on the state’s roads in a year. The calculations from the subsequent fires in Southern California are not yet available, but given the duration and scope of the multiple blazes, they could well exceed that level.

The greenhouse gases released when forests burn not only do immediate harm, discharging carbon dioxide and other planet-warming gases; they also continue to inflict damage long after the fires are put out. In a state where emissions from nearly every industry are tightly regulated, if wildfires were treated like other carbon emitters, Mother Nature would be castigated, fined and shut down.

The air board estimates that between 2001 and 2010, wildfires generated approximately 120 million tons of carbon. But Clegern said a direct comparison with regulated emissions is difficult, in part because of limited monitoring data.

“Nature doesn’t follow the rules very well,” said Jim Branham, executive officer at the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, a state agency that has created a plan to better harness California’s forests in reducing carbon in the atmosphere.

As is so often the case in environmental catastrophes, one thing leads to another, creating what Branham calls the double whammy: Burning trees not only release powerful pollutants known as black carbon; once a forest is gone, its prodigious ability to absorb carbon from the atmosphere and store it is lost, too.

Scientists estimate that in severely burned areas, only a fraction of a scorched tree’s emissions are released during the fire, perhaps as little as 15 percent. The bulk of greenhouse gases are released over months and years as the plant dies and decomposes.

And if a burned-out forest is replaced by chaparral or brush, that landscape loses more than 90 percent of its capacity to take in and retain carbon, according to the conservancy.

Severe fires have the capacity to inflict profound damage in a short span. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that the 2013 Rim Fire in central California spewed out the equivalent of the carbon-dioxide emissions from 3 million cars. That is a setback to the state’s effort to get cars off the road, another critical tool for reducing greenhouse gases.

The role of wildfires as a major source of pollution was identified a decade ago, when a study conducted by the National Center for Atmospheric Research concluded that “a severe fire season lasting only one or two months can release as much carbon as the annual emissions from the entire transportation or energy sector of an individual state.”

It’s a measure of the dramatic ramping up of fires in the West that today, a single fire can meet that threshold.

The entire equation has been made worse by the state’s epidemic of tree death, caused by drought, disease and insect infestation. The U.S. Forest Service earlier this month updated its estimate of dead trees across California to 129 million. That loss alone could be a blow to the state’s vision of a low-carbon future.

“Dead trees don’t sequester carbon,” Branham said.

Forests as carbon-chewers are part of the state’s strategy for cutting greenhouse-gas emissions significantly by 2020 and beyond—a goal that could be undermined by nature’s caprice. The air board will direct state agencies to determine more precisely how much carbon can be absorbed by California’s variety of landscapes.

Air quality, too, is subject to state, local and federal regulations. But those standards go out the window in large fires, when soot and ash blanketing entire regions can be seen from space.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency, which sets air pollution standards nationally, has an “exceptional events” rule that exempts states from fines under certain extraordinary conditions.

California has invoked the rule during wildfires at least once before, in 2008, for fires in the Sacramento area. The request was accepted, according to the air board.

More recently, Sean Raffuse, an analyst at the Air Quality Research Center at the University of California at Davis, came up with the “back of the envelope” calculations for October’s Sonoma County fires.

Raffuse said he used federal emissions inventories from fires and calculated that five days of ashy spew from the northern California blazes equated to the annual air pollution from every vehicle in California.

Those kinds of computations are seldom replicated, largely for lack of the necessary instruments present at fire sites. But things are changing: Researchers have been attempting to better understand the full range of environmental damage wrought by wildfires. One tool is drones that can be flown through smoke plumes to collect samples for analysis.

“We don’t have the means to measure emissions from a wildfire like we do from a tailpipe,” Branham said. “We are lagging well behind in understanding and having hard data of the effects of these fires. And most of the data are chasing reality.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

A young lawyer for the Environmental Protection Agency had a heavy feeling as he headed to work one recent morning.

Like many EPA staffers, he’s been distraught over the steady stream of negative news about the Trump administration’s plans for his agency, and what it all means for his future. That morning the White House had released its budget proposal, calling on Congress to cut 31 percent of the EPA’s budget, more than 50 programs and 3,200 of the agency’s 15,000 employees.

The lawyer’s subway stop, the Federal Triangle Metro Station, dumps people out under a grand archway between two entrances to the EPA’s ornate limestone DC headquarters. As he went up the escalator, he encountered a small group of people standing in the cold wind, passing out fliers and holding signs that read: “Fight climate change; work for California.”

A man with a bushy gray mustache exclaimed: “I’m recruiting for California jobs!” and introduced himself to the EPA lawyer as Michael Picker, the president of California’s Public Utilities Commission, which regulates electric companies and other utilities.

Picker explained that he has 250 job openings—and more on the way. California’s Air Resources Board and Energy Commission also have opportunities for federal employees frustrated with the direction in which the Trump administration is headed.

“All the jobs will have impacts on climate change in some ways,” he said.

Picker’s recruitment drive is more than a publicity stunt: His agency is short-staffed already, and he’s steadily losing employees to retirement. He needs reinforcements to meet an enormous challenge in front of him. He needs to ensure that electric utilities make the investments necessary to generate enough clean energy to meet California’s ambitious climate change goals. (California is committed to getting 50 percent of its power from renewable energy by 2030.)

The EPA lawyer said his encounter with Picker last week lifted his spirits giving him a sense of “relief” and “hope.” He’d already considered seeking a job in California, where the state government has a strong commitment to environmental protection.

“There’s a pull and a push, especially with the budget coming out,” added the lawyer, who like other EPA staffers, didn’t want his name used for fear it would put his job in jeopardy.

This was just the kind of encounter that Picker hoped for when he decided to turn an already-planned trip to Washington, D.C., into a mini recruiting mission. His goal was to try to lure talented federal employees to California state government by promising them a chance to work someplace still committed to fighting climate change. He also spent a morning passing out fliers at the Energy Department. But he was especially happy with how things went outside EPA’s headquarters.

One EPA staffer ran inside and returned with a resume. An EPA engineer asked for extra fliers for his colleagues. Picker passed out business cards, offering to help the D.C. refugees navigate the cumbersome hiring process at California state agencies. “Thank you for offering to rescue us!” one EPA staffer bellowed as he walked past.

Picker’s challenge is bigger than getting companies to generate cleaner electricity. He also has to ensure they make investments to transform the electric grid to meet the challenges of all the additional renewable power that’s coming online.

The grid was designed as a centralized system where electricity was generated by relatively few large power plants. The grid now needs to get a lot smarter to manage many thousands of new sources of power, from large-scale solar and wind farms to solar panels on top of people’s homes. Cleaner electricity isn’t enough: California also wants to shift its vehicles to clean electricity: “That’s why we need people—to help build the infrastructure California needs to get greenhouse gases out of our economy. These tasks aren’t going to solve themselves.”

Despite all the rhetoric from the White House and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt about major plans to transform the agency and downplay climate change, there hasn’t yet been a big exodus. EPA employees are passionate about the mission of the agency, and so far, many staffers say they’re still doing their usual work.

“Because nothing drastic has changed yet at EPA, people don’t have immediate pressure to leave,” said another EPA staffer who spoke with Picker. “You saw people taking those fliers. So it’s not that people aren’t thinking about it.”

She said she thinks California is smart to try to lure away the EPA’s talented employees at a time when their current employer is making it clear their work isn’t valued. She will definitely consider moving to California for a job, she said.

Fundamental changes are on the way, given that Pruitt and President Donald Trump have vowed to undo the biggest efforts undertaken by the EPA during the Obama administration—regulations to slash greenhouse gas emissions from cars and power plants and protect wetlands and waterways. Trump took a big step today with an executive order undoing many Obama-era regulations. EPA staffers will now be charged with justifying the elimination of regulations that they or their colleagues spent years crafting.

None of the EPA staffers I spoke with were willing to have their names published.

“We’re all afraid now of retribution if we talk. It’s already started to happen,” said one staffer.

John O’Grady, president of a national council of EPA employee unions, said EPA employees are right to be cautious. “We all pretty much are aware we cannot speak out in the press; that would not be a very smart move on the part of an employee.”

As Picker was wrapping up for the morning, a bundled-up bike commuter rode up to ask about an application he’d already sent in. Picker promised to help and then took a photo with some volunteers who had showed up to help him pass out fliers. One was a corporate lawyer, another a former Energy Department official, and third a solar executive from Oregon who was in town for business.

“I’m disillusioned by Trump’s budget proposal,” said Tom Starrs, a vice president of SunPower Corporation. ”On the other hand, I’m inspired by California continuing to address climate change and by the support at every level of government in California. It’s a unified front on climate change. It’s wonderful to see.”

Correspondent Elizabeth Shogren writes for High Country News, where this story first appeared.

Published in Environment

Most weekdays, a long line of rail cars delivers thick slabs of steel to a factory in Fontana, about 40 miles east of Los Angeles, and 60 miles northwest of Palm Springs. Deep in the bowels of California Steel Industries, the slabs are toasted until they glow white-hot; they’re then rolled into thin sheets used to make shipping containers, metal roofing and car wheels.

The plant churns out more than 2 million tons of flat rolled steel each year, using enormous amounts of natural gas and electricity, and releasing more than 190,000 metric tons of climate-altering carbon dioxide annually. Now, California Steel and many other businesses have to pay for their carbon emissions under California's new cap-and-trade law, the first of its kind in the nation.

Last November, the company participated in the state's first auction of carbon allowances, purchasing an undisclosed number, each worth one metric ton of carbon dioxide and selling for $10.09. The online auction went fairly smoothly, says Brett Guge, executive vice president of finance and administration at the company. But for Guge, the long-term challenge is finding ways to meet California's ambitious greenhouse-gas reduction targets (down to 1990 levels by 2020) while remaining profitable.

The Golden State forged ahead with the carbon dioxide cap-and-trade program despite the U.S. Senate's 2010 failure to pass a national program. Given the state's history of implementing environmental regulations that later become national policy, a successful cap-and-trade system could serve as a federal model. If cap-and-trade in California "fails, or is perceived to have failed, then that could be the nail in the coffin for cap-and-trade consideration as a policy instrument in Washington," says Robert Stavins, a Harvard professor who studies climate policy.

While its overall impact on U.S. emissions won't be major, the California experiment makes several improvements to existing cap-and-trade strategies. It covers more sources of pollution than the 5-year-old Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the Northeastern U.S., which applies only to power plants. The European Union started the world's largest carbon cap-and-trade program in 2005, but it had a significant flaw: The initial stage of the program gave away too many free credits, resulting in some power companies raking in windfall profits by raising electricity prices, even though they didn't have to pay for their allowances. It also contributed to low prices for carbon allowances, which provides scant incentive to cut emissions.

Mary Nichols, chairman of the California Air Resources Board, the agency steering the state program, is confident that California's effort will be different. The program covers 360 businesses, which represent about 600 facilities that each release more than 25,000 metric tons yearly—enough to put a big dent in California's total carbon output. The EU's difficulty, Nichols notes, was that authorities didn't have an accurate measure of the total quantity of emissions initially. California, though, has had a greenhouse-gas reporting requirement in place since 2008.

"We knew (what polluters) were actually putting into the atmosphere," says Nichols. "That gave us the assurance that if we started a (cap-and-trade) program … we would be able to implement it in a way that would not cause the kinds of problems that occurred in Europe."

Fraud could be another obstacle, but experts agree the state is equipped to keep that to a minimum. The Air Resources Board uses third-party verifiers to check reported emissions, and has a system to track allowances and prove their authenticity. Companies that fail to supply enough credits to cover their emissions are fined by having to purchase four times the number of outstanding allowances. While not flawless, the program is unlikely to suffer from market manipulation and fraud, according to an analysis by the University of California at Los Angeles.

But even if the cap-and-trade system works as intended, its economic impacts are a big unknown. Because of its many regulations, high electricity rates and taxes, California is already a costly place to do business.

Guge is worried there won't be a feasible way to reduce the carbon dioxide output of his company's gas-powered furnaces, which account for 75 percent of the plant's total releases. Without reductions, his company will have to pay for more allowances as the cap tightens, but it's reluctant to pass those increased costs on to customers, because that might put it at a competitive disadvantage.

Proponents of cap-and-trade hope the system will drive innovations, with new companies popping up to provide emissions-curbing breakthroughs. In late January, the Sacramento-based firm Clean Tech Advocates launched to do just that. It works to help clean tech developers get state funding, generated from the carbon-credit auctions, for their projects, and its consultants help companies reduce emissions. Founder Patrick Leathers says that, over time, the auctions will bring in "billions of dollars," which will boost the state's clean tech industry and result in carbon-cutting solutions for companies dealing with cap-and-trade.

Environmentalists—and businesses—are hoping he's right.

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment