Scott Pruitt, Donald Trump’s choice to run the Environmental Protection Agency, has been an outspoken advocate of the prerogatives of the states in defining their own environmental policies. He is, after all, an Oklahoma attorney general who has helped mobilize other Republican AGs to sue EPA 14 times, mostly because he thinks EPA has exceeded its statutory authority in displacing the states as regulators of fossil fuel and agricultural industries.
But as is the case with many conservative states’ rights enthusiasts, it’s an open question as to whether Pruitt’s determination to let states go their own way will extend to those who prefer tougher regulations than the feds require. The answer to that question was by no means resolved by Pruitt’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
The flashpoint for Democratic senators questioning Pruitt was whether he intended to renew the decades-old EPA waiver that has allowed California — followed by 13 other states — to impose more stringent emissions standards on automobiles sold in the Golden State. California’s leadership on this issue, which has had the effect of forcing major pollution-reducing technologies into the national assembly lines of automakers, actually predates EPA (and the Clean Air Act) itself and can be traced back to the smog crisis in California cities in the 1960s. The state’s ability to exceed national standards in this area really came into question after California enacted a plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles in 2004. The Bush administration actually denied Sacramento a waiver for this purpose in 2008, but fortunately for California policymakers, the new Obama administration gave them and their counterparts in other states a green light in 2009.
What will EPA do now with California’s annual request to extend that waiver, and more importantly, what will its general posture be toward states that want to be more aggressive than the Trump administration about climate change and other environmental challenges? Pruitt did nothing at his hearing to assuage state concerns.
Pressed by Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) about whether he intends to leave California’s authority in place, Pruitt would only say, “I don’t know without going through the process to determine that. One would not want to presume the outcome.”
Given Pruitt’s coziness with the fossil-fuel industry and its advocates in the past, environmentalists are not optimistic about where EPA will land on this subject.
But beyond the urgent issue of automobiles and climate change, how Pruitt’s EPA deals with states that want to do things the GOP’s business constituencies don’t like is part of the broader question as to whether blue states can survive the Trump administration by going their own way and taking advantage of the Republican Party’s often-stated commitment to federalism. If Trump’s federal regulators take a hard line against state regulators, then national political change may become the only option for those Americans who (knowingly or not) prefer policies significantly different from those of the regime that takes power in Washington on Friday.