EPA's Top California Official 'Believes in Climate Change' But Mum on Newsom's Gasoline-Car Ban

John Busterud (EPA)

As the head of the federal  Environmental Protection Agency’s San Francisco office, John Busterud is the agency's top federal regulator in the West.

He oversees 700 staff employees and environmental protection efforts across the agency’s Region 9. Those actions affect 50 million people living in California, other Western states, the Pacific Islands and tribal lands — at a time when California leaders continue to spar with Washington over pretty much every issue related to the environment

That means he’s on the front lines of a battle between the Trump administration and California over climate change. Busterud, a former PG&E attorney, is more of a traditional Republican than a MAGA diehard.

His publicly stated view about climate change differs from that of President Trump. Busterud tells KQED that he “believes in climate change and that humans play a part in it.”

Trump rejected the central findings of his own administration's National Climate Assessment, saying, “I don’t believe it. No, no, I don’t believe it.”

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Scientists from 13 federal agencies reviewed thousands of climate studies for the fourth volume of the assessment, released in 2018, and concluded that greenhouse gases released by human activity are causing lasting economic damage to the nation.

But Busterud defends Trump's environmental policies and suggested to KQED that natural emission sources from wildfires could be playing a large role in warming the planet. "We have seen over the last month or so that that [human-caused emissions of planet warming gases] can be dwarfed by fire-related emissions, but perhaps climate has an impact on that as well."

It's true that wildfires emit greenhouse gases and destroy trees that would otherwise remove carbon dioxide from the air.

But the leading cause of global warming remains overwhelmingly the burning of fossil fuels. According to the EPA, "Human activities are responsible for almost all of the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere over the last 150 years."

California tracks greenhouse gas emissions from wildfires separately from those produced by cars, power plants and other human sources because they have a faster carbon cycle.

Busterud’s predecessor, Mike Stoker — a former oil industry spokesperson, was fired after an internal watchdog investigation. EPA spokeswoman Corry Schiermeyer told KQED in a statement that Stoker was let go for “severe neglect and incompetent administration of his duties.”

Emails obtained by KQED through a public document request show agency staff cheering Busterud’s appointment.

Steven Leonido-John, director of EPA's Southern California field office, wrote that Busterud’s hiring “by all measures, seems to be a very positive thing” and described him as a “Republican of the old variety."

California officials, meanwhile, seem at least willing to give Busterud the benefit of the doubt.

Jared Blumenfeld, California's top environmental regulator, told the San Francisco Chronicle that Busterud "seems reasonable and generally thoughtful on the issues" and "has the potential to do a good job."

In the roughly six months that he’s been on the job, Busterud has avoided the spotlight and — at least publicly — California’s ongoing fight with the Trump administration over how to regulate pollution from cars and trucks.

Instead, he’s focused on administrative duties. For example, last week he awarded a grant to a UC Berkeley program to research alternatives to PFAs — so-called "forever" chemicals that cause health effects with continued exposure — used in carpet manufacturing and other industries.

“We're trying to make much more than the grant,” he said. “We're trying to encourage further action.”

Busterud spoke with KQED last week about climate change and Trump's baseless claim that San Francisco should be punished for allowing discarded needles to wash into the ocean. He was less than forthcoming about California’s planned ban on the sale of new internal-combustion cars.

What is your response to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive order banning the sale of gasoline-powered cars in California by the year 2035?

That particular issue is one that is handled by headquarters and to one to which they will have to respond and they will respond. There is much coverage of the waiver issue. We're certainly all familiar with it. But that decision is made at headquarters.

You are referring to an action taken by the EPA to revoke California’s waiver to set its own tailpipe emission rules. California sued in response. State leaders say the Trump administration is weaponizing the EPA on this issue.

I would certainly disagree with that choice of terminology. The waiver issue raises national consideration and a discussion about if [regulation of] certain emissions or certain technology should be a national approach as opposed to a patchwork state-by-state approach. But again, that's something that headquarters is managing. There is a dialogue. I acknowledge that it's a contentious issue and one that I hope is resolved over time.

Do you understand the state’s frustration? EPA has provided the waiver for 50 years and is pushing California to clean up its air. But California’s tailpipe emission rules are the key policy tool the state employed to deal with smog.

Certainly. And I understand. We're very much engaged in working with the air districts and with CARB (the California Air Resources Board) on attainment issues day in and day out. Mobile sources are the single largest source in California, as opposed to other states where other sectors are that are considerable. That's all I can really say on that one at this point.

Local officials have called President Trump’s argument that San Francisco improperly discharged feces, needles and wastewater into the ocean — absurd. EPA issued San Francisco  a violation for “failure to properly operate and maintain the city's sewage collection and treatment facilities.”

Do you think that the involvement of your agency in this issue was politically motivated? Did your agency find anything that backed up the president’s claims?

You would expect that I would and should and will say that it's an open and pending enforcement action and not one I can comment on. I will just say that this investigation of this matter and those issues started in 2015. If you ... do the math, that perhaps responds in part to your question.

You're implying that the agency's involvement was not politically motivated because it began in 2015 under the Obama administration?

The investigation began in 2015. And that's the most I can or should say.

Explain to me how that is an underreported story.

I think that perhaps in your question you are saying that, well, my predecessor didn't agree with the consensus on climate change or that the agency shouldn't regulate it. We do regulate greenhouse gas emissions, power plant emissions, but we regulate them at that facility level as provided under the act. Under the Clean Power Plan of the prior administration — that plan was enjoined by the Supreme Court at the time — that kind of economy wide regulation is not permitted by the act. And so what we do is focus on facilities, specific controls of those pollutants.

It’s your view that the Clean Power Plan was an overstep from what is allowed by the Clean Air Act?

The Supreme Court did it. They didn't ask my opinion.

The EPA has rolled back enforcement of planet-warming gases. During President Trump’s visit to survey the wildfire damage, Wade Crowfoot, secretary of the state natural resources agency, pressed him, saying studies show climate change is a key driver of the state’s fires. Trump said “science doesn’t know.”

I can't really comment on the exchange that the president had. I wasn't there.

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