California Sues Trump Administration Over Clean Power Rollback

The coal-fired Intermountain Power Plant is seen on March 28, 2016 outside Delta, Utah.  (George Frey/Getty Images)

California has joined with 21 other states, the District of Columbia, Los Angeles, and five other cities in a legal challenge to the Trump administration’s repeal of Obama-era clean power rules.

The coalition, led by New York State, is suing the federal Environmental Protection Agency to try and  block the agency from relaxing regulations on coal-burning power plants.

At a Tuesday morning press conference in Sacramento, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said the Trump administration’s policy would increase air pollution and exacerbate global warming.

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“This is not just about fighting Donald Trump,” said Newsom. “This is about our kids and our grandkids. This is about clean air, clean water and endangered species. I’ll say it. I kind of miss Richard Nixon” - whose administration authorized the EPA in nearly five decades ago.

The lawsuit argues that the agency is responsible for regulating greenhouse gas emissions, and that the Trump administration’s Affordable Clean Energy rule fails this mandate. Also, the new power rules prop up aging coal-fired power plants, increase dirty air pollution and threaten the country's most vulnerable people. The regulations replaced the Obama-era Clean Power Plan.

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Newsom announced the lawsuit flanked by state Attorney General Xavier Becerra and the California Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols.

Becerra called the administration’s attempt to scrap Obama climate rules foolish, unlawful, and a betrayal of “everyone who stands for cleaner air.”

“It fails our economy, which depends on clean energy now more than ever,” he said. “We know what our energy future must look like, and we won’t get there by following President Trump’s misguided proposal.”

Less than 24 hours before, Becerra vowed to sue the Trump administration for its plan to weaken the Endangered Species Act. Monday, he said California wouldn’t “pick a fight every time this administration decides to take an action” but it would challenge actions when the state feels it is necessary.

Nichols said the federal plan reverses California’s progress on combating climate change and keeps “the oldest and dirtiest power plants in the country on life support.”

President Nixon signed the federal  Clean Air Act into law in 1970 to prevent air pollution and protect public health. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the law applies to greenhouse gas emissions and  climate change issues. After that ruling, the Obama administration said in its Clean Power Plan that carbon emissions from American power plants and cars endangered public health.

“This opened the door -- or maybe requires,  that’s what this lawsuit will be about -- EPA to regulate emissions of greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and factories,” said Eric Biber, director of the Environmental and Energy Law Programs at UC Berkeley Law.

“The focus here is really electric power plants,” he said. “The Obama Administration took two steps. The first step was to regulate emissions from new power plants. The second one was an effort to regulate emissions from existing power plants.”

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, whose state produced the second most coal behind Wyoming in 2017, predicted the lawsuit will ultimately fail at the U.S. Supreme Court, which stayed an earlier Obama administration attempt in 2016 at the request of a competing 27-state coalition.

He called the lawsuit a “big government ‘power grab’” and argued that the Democratic attorneys general “are dead wrong” in their interpretation of the Clean Air Act.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The U.S. EPA said in a statement that it wouldn’t comment on pending litigation, but that it “worked diligently to ensure we produced a solid rule that we believe will be upheld in the courts, unlike the previous administration’s Clean Power Plan.”

David Doniger, senior strategic director for climate and clean energy for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that the Trump administration is misreading the law.

“The goals of the Clean Power Plan were issued by Obama’s team in 2015 and are being met or surpassed,” he said. “The right thing to do at that point, because climate change is getting worse, is revise the standards and make them stronger. Instead, what the Trump administration is doing is reinterpreting the Clean Air Act so that it can’t do anything about climate change.”

Doniger said his organization, the Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund and other groups plan Wednesday to file another lawsuit challenging the Trump administration on this issue.

Two public health organizations, the American Lung Association and American Public Health Association, have already sued. Doniger said he expects all of the legal challenges will be folded into one case called American Lung Association vs. Wheeler.

In February, Andrew Wheeler became Trump's EPA administrator.

Don Thompson and Adam Beam from the Associated Press contributed to this report. Read their story here

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