Heat distorts the appearance of a firefighter setting a backfire to protect homes and to try to contain the Blue Ridge Fire on Oct. 27, 2020, in Chino Hills, Calif.   David McNew/Getty Images
Heat distorts the appearance of a firefighter setting a backfire to protect homes and to try to contain the Blue Ridge Fire on Oct. 27, 2020, in Chino Hills, Calif.  (David McNew/Getty Images)

California Environmental Officials Switch to Offense as Biden Takes Charge

California Environmental Officials Switch to Offense as Biden Takes Charge

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Sacramento, at least, is excited about Washington’s new climate direction.

Jared Blumenfeld and Wade Crowfoot head California's environmental protection and natural resources agencies, respectively. Last week, they discussed with KQED’s Kevin Stark what the change from the Trump to Biden administrations might mean for California.

Blumenfeld says he and other California environmental leaders are “euphoric” about a flurry of Biden administration executive orders resetting U.S. climate policy and tearing up the environmental agenda of the Trump administration.

“We're coming out of a hellish period in American environmental politics,” Blumenfeld said. “That euphoria really is based on the fact that the president is taking immediate action, and climate change is one of his top four priorities with equity and the pandemic and the economy.”

Biden has placed a temporary hold on new oil and gas leasing on federal lands, stating that his administration will seek to cut emissions from fossil fuels while doubling energy production from offshore wind turbines.

His order to U.S. agencies to review fuel efficiency standards will be one of the most impactful changes for California, initiating a bureaucratic process that Blumenfeld hopes will establish a set of federal cleaner car rules that match California’s agreement with major auto manufacturers.

The president’s order to triple protected land and waterways across the country should also infuse the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management with badly needed funds. Crowfoot says he hopes Biden will use the money to rapidly increase prescribed burns and other ecologically driven fire-mitigation measures across the nearly 19 million acres of federal forest land in California.

“It’s a new day of partnership between the state and federal government protecting our communities and natural places from catastrophic wildfire,” Crowfoot said. “I'm convinced we have good partners on the ground in the federal agencies in California, but they've been starved for resources from Washington, D.C., and we're hopeful that's going to change.”

The following excerpts from the conversation have been edited for length and clarity.

Newsom recently asked Biden to reissue the state’s waiver to set its own clean car rules, which was rescinded by the Trump administration. Do you expect Biden will grant the waiver?

Blumenfeld: The president has talked to the governor explicitly about this issue, and it’s very top of mind for us to resolve, simply because it’s such a big part of California’s greenhouse gas emissions.

California received special authorization more than 50 years ago, when the Clean Air Act was first created and signed into law, by of all people President Nixon. And the reason for that is L.A. smog was so bad that we knew we needed standards that went further than the rest of the nation. That’s continued year in, year out, as 50% of the state's emissions are coming from the transportation sector. If we have any chance of getting rid of our dependency on fossil fuels, which we have to in the climate battle, we need to reduce demand. And that demand comes from vehicles. The Trump administration put on hold anything that California wanted to do. We sued them and that’s still working its way through the courts. But now we can leapfrog all that kind of ridiculousness and go right to working with the federal government.

We have to have standards for new cars between now and 2026 because the Trump administration diluted those. And then [the federal government] needs to align with California’s goal of all new vehicles by 2035 being zero emission. This isn't a choice at this point.

Will California’s agreement with the car companies to abide by tougher standards on tailpipe emissions than Trump wanted be the foundation for a new federal standard?

Blumenfeld: We had Obama standards that harmonized California and the rest of the federal government. Trump then blew those up. We now need to come back to the table and work out what those national standards are. And we were really thrilled that folks like Ford and Honda and BMW and VW said, “We're going to sign an agreement with California that no matter what the Trump administration says, we're going to have national standards for the parts of the country that may not even care about this issue; we’re going to still give them cars that meet the California standards.” That’s what’s in place. We’re hoping that GM, Toyota, Chrysler and others will join us with that framework and move forward together with the Biden administration, to come out with one standard. A lot of the people who helped construct that are now in the Biden administration. We look forward to collaborating to solve this.


Secretary Crowfoot, you said you want partnerships between states and the federal government on forest management and wildfire mitigation. What would be your top priority for this?

Crowfoot: In California, our federal agencies own and manage 57% of our forests. We are not going to make a dent protecting California against catastrophic wildfire without scaled-up funding and priority from the federal government. And I think President Biden and Vice President Harris have made it very clear that they’re going to be much more proactive partners than the last administration.

The top priority is to fund the U.S. Forest Service to actually do proactive forest resilience work. In recent decades, most of the Forest Service funding has been raided every year for fire response, [leaving] less and less on actually doing things like prescribed burns and ecologically sensitive treatments in the forest. And so we have to ensure that the federal government actually funds these federal agencies to get in there and do the ecologically based forest-health work that is needed, or else we’re just going to spend more and more responding. Federal funding will be an important indication of the new administration’s priority to help California combat wildfires.

Newsom has called on legislators to develop legislation banning new fracking permits, but no proposal has yet emerged. Is the Newsom administration working on this?

Crowfoot: This fall, the governor made clear that he does not see a future for fracking in California. And he explained that he would support legislation to phase it out. It’s our understanding that legislative members are developing a proposal to phase out fracking in California. And we look forward to talking to them and working with them ultimately to meet the vision that the governor set forth this fall.

Advocates are calling on the governor to set a date to phase out fossil fuels. Will that be part of any proposal that emerges?

Crowfoot: Fossil fuel extraction in California was at its height in 1986, and it’s been reduced every year for the last few decades. At this point, we produce about 40% of that peak use. At the same time, our consumers use over 600 million barrels of oil each year in the form of gasoline to power cars and trucks.

It is critical that we reduce our reliance and ultimately eliminate our reliance on fossil fuels. If no other barrel of oil came out of the ground in California but we don’t change our habits, we’ll simply be importing more oil from other parts of the world. We need to reduce and ultimately eliminate our demand if we’re going to meet the climate challenge.

We’ve been clear that as we phase out our demand for fossil fuels, we will phase out the supply in our state. We anticipate this will happen in coming years, as we march toward the 2045 carbon neutrality goal. I do anticipate that there will be a clear trajectory for the phasing out of both demand and supply.

Secretary Blumenfeld, in a letter to state senators you said the opportunity to revisit the cap-and-trade program, which has been criticized by the environmental justice community, exists as part of updating CARB’s Scoping Plan. How would you like to see cap-and-trade changed?

Blumenfeld: The cap-and-trade program is a market-based mechanism that basically does two things. Year after year, the amount of carbon that can exist under the cap goes down — that’s how you reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The second part is the trading of allowances in a market system, so that there’s an actual price on carbon; a lot of people talk nationally about the importance of putting a price on carbon.

There are two criticisms of cap-and-trade. One is that there's an overreliance on [the allowance] mechanism. So moving forward we need to do more regulation and less market-based. The second valid critique is related to environmental justice, where you’re living in  low-income communities of color and say, “Well, someone shouldn’t be allowed to pay to emit more pollution in my community.” We’re going to look at both in terms of how we get to our 2030 targets. Then we have a state goal of getting to carbon neutrality by 2045; cap-and-trade will play a role but we all anticipate it will play a slightly smaller role than we originally thought. And we need to make sure that those equity concerns are brought to the forefront.