Gas War: EPA Says California Has Worst Air Quality in the U.S., Threatens to Cut Highway Funding

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

With California gearing up for a legal battle against federal regulators eager to revoke its fuel waiver, we knew it wouldn’t be long before another salvo was launched in the gas war. However, the latest skirmish is a bit personal. According to Automotive News, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler issued a letter to to California Air Resource Board chief Mary Nichols on Tuesday that framed the Golden State as unfit to dictate U.S. environmental policy.

The letter claims California has “the worst air quality in the United States” and a backlog of implementation plans to address ambient pollution standards surpassing every other state in the union.

California is scheduled to receive over $4 billion in annual federal highway funding this October. Now, the EPA is claiming the state failed to enforce the U.S. Clean Air Act. As a result, the Trump administration is threatening to withdraw those funds if the region doesn’t take immediately action on 130 different state implementation plans.

From Automotive News:

The letter contended that California “has failed to carry out its most basic tasks under the Clean Air Act” and 34 million people in the state live in areas that do not memet air quality standards “more than twice as many people as any other state.”

Wheeler said in a statement “EPA stands ready to work with California to meet the Trump Administration’s goal of clean, healthy air for all Americans, and we hope the state will work with us in good faith.”

California previously attempted to procure support for maintaining higher emission standards than Trump’s fueling rollback initially proposed. Many have accused the state of trying to hold the country hostage by threatening a split auto market if no collaborative standard is reached. However, neither side has been particularly cooperative — making it difficult to pin anyone as “the bad guy.” Most issues can probably be attributed to partisan deadlock.

Threats that the federal government would withdrawal billions in highway funding over failure to adhere to the Clean Air Act and attempt to remove California’s ability to self regulate could also be viewed as crossing another line. The Trump administration already plans to withhold $929 million from California’s high-speed rail project — which has been a minor disaster — and is working to undo the state’s fueling waiver granted by the EPA in 2009. Those issues encouraged California and 22 other states to sue the NHTSA on Friday. A follow-up suit is being planned for the EPA, though other environmental lawsuits between the two already exist.

All told, California has filed 29 eco-related lawsuits against the Trump administration since 2017. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said the “threat to withhold California’s highway funding over clean air quality reports is the height of hypocrisy. California doesn’t need to be lectured by an administration beholden to polluters.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom weighed in one day before the letter’s release during a climate conference in New York. During the meeting, he criticized President Trump of infringing on what he claimed were states’ rights. He was also critical of the administration’s antitrust probe examining automakers that engaged in a joint emissions agreement with California.

“I don’t know what the hell happened to this country that we have the President that we do today, on this issue,” Newsom said on Monday. “It’s a damn shame, it really is. I’m not a little embarrassed about it, I’m absolutely humiliated by what’s going on.”

If you’re wondering if the claims against California’s air quality are true, the American Lung Association did cite California as the state with the worst air pollution in 2019. It also had the highest occurrence of U.S. cities with extremely high particulate levels.

A complete copy of Wheeler’s letter to the California Air Resource Board was shared by the San Francisco Chronicle and Sacramento Bee. It requests that the board issue a response regarding its implementation plans by October 10th.

[Image: Trekandshoot/Shutterstock]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • Pwrwrench Pwrwrench on Sep 25, 2019

    Olivebranch2006 hit on it. This goes back more than 60 years. Look at historic photos of Los Angeles in the 1950s and 60s. On a "clear" day you could barely see the buildings. I recall visiting L A in the early 1960s. It was summer and my eyes felt like they were burning. It is seldom like that now. The air has gotten better overall since then. Partly due to emission ("smog") controls on vehicles. Some of the change was that many "smokestack" industries shut down. There were several steel plants, tire makers, and others. All gone starting in the early 1980s. To the OP: From the beginning of the Clean Air Act, in the 1970s, it was obvious that California was not going to meet the standards. Even though California had the first vehicle emission controls, PCV, starting in 1966 and more emission controls since then. Most vehicles have a sticker on the door post that will tell you what standards it meets. There is "Meets US EPA requirements for XXXX (model year)." Or Meets California requirements. Some other states go by the California standard. New York state is one. The enforcement of the Clean Air Act has been to not pay the state, that's out of compliance, Federal Highway funds. The Federal EPA was in a dispute over this with California from the late 1970s. A compromise was agreed to in the early 1980s. California would have an "Inspection and Maintenance Program" for vehicles. This is the emission (smog test) every 2 years to get vehicle registration. This has improved the air, but as was mentioned earlier much of the remaining industry would have to get a lot cleaner or go away to meet the Clean Air Act. Yes agriculture has a big part in this. Anyone that has been in the Central Valley in the summer can see this. There are particulates from all the tractors and other farm equipment, the dust that goes up into the air when the fields are plowed and equipment drives on the dirt roads, and all the farts from the cattle. It would have made a bigger improvement if it had been required that people get a new car with the latest equipment every 8-10 years, but the slaves have to get to work. All those dishwashers, cooks, nannies, drywallers, farmworkers, and so on need to get to work or everything would grind to a halt. They are not paid enough to have anything newer than 20 years old. I don't think very many who remember the way the air was in the 50s, 60s, and 70s want to go back to that. California has had different vehicle requirements for more than 50 years and is has made some improvement. So to say that California should not have stricter emission requirements on vehicles is absurd if you want to ever meet the Clean Air Act.

    • See 1 previous
    • Luke42 Luke42 on Sep 25, 2019

      @DenverMike By failing to address the cost of housing, California keeps population growth to a minimum. Heck, if I could afford a 2500 square foot 5-bedroom condo in SF, I'd have moved there years ago. But, the software industry pays about 20% more there than they do here in rural Illinois, and the cost of housing is 500%-1000% more there. So, the math doesn't work out unless you're willing to take a hit for "the experience".

  • Scoutdude Scoutdude on Sep 25, 2019

    This really is two different issues. #1 CA wants to regulate automobile CO2 emissions via higher MPG standards and force it on many other states. #2 CA has failed to implement plans for non automotive emissions (I'm betting a lot of them are actual toxins) as required by the EPA. So yeah I agree that if they can't be compliant with ALL EPA standards they why should we let them dictate automotive standards.

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    • Dal20402 Dal20402 on Sep 25, 2019

      CA isn't forcing their emissions rules on anyone. CA emissions states can go back to the federal standards any time. The other states have made voluntary decisions that they prefer what CARB is doing to what the EPA is doing.

  • NotMyCircusNotMyMonkeys i was only here for torchinsky
  • Tane94 Workhorse probably will be added to the heap of failed EV companies.
  • Freddie Instead of taking the day off, how about an article on the connection between Black Americans and the auto industry and car culture? Having done zero research, two topics pop into my head: Chrysler designer/executive Ralph Gilles, and the famous (infamous?) "Green Book".
  • Tane94 Either Elio Motors or Aptera Motors.
  • Billccm I think we will see history repeat itself. The French acquired AMC in the 1980s, discovered they couldn't make easy money, sold AMC off to Chrysler. Jeep is all that remained. This time the French acquired FCA, and they are discovering no easy profits. Assume an Asian manufacturer will acquire what remains of Chrysler, but this time Jeep and RAM are the only survivors.