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Trump’s revocation of the Clean Air Act’s states’ rights waiver sends a ‘chilling message’, says Rabe

October 10, 2019

Last month, President Trump revoked California’s waiver under the 1970 Clean Air Act, stripping California and 13 other states of their authority to set state-level standards on tailpipe emissions. Contrary to typical Republican values favoring states’ rights, this action has received serious backlash. “It looks like a search-and-destroy [effort], and it sends a chilling message to other states,” said Barry Rabe, professor of public policy at the Ford School in a New York Times article “A ‘Chilling Message’: Trump Critics See a Deeper Agenda in California Feud” on October 3.

Twenty-three states have sued the Trump administration, citing the revocation as an attack on states’ rights. Simultaneously, four automakers have signed a deal with California stating their intention to comply with stricter emissions standards even if the revocation takes effect, essentially defeating the Trump administration’s desire to eliminate protections against climate-warming vehicle emissions.

The revocation and excessive scrutiny has had a peculiar emphasis on the state of California, which state officials and administration critics see as retribution for the liberal state’s rejection of some administration policies. Recently, Andrew Wheeler, the Trump administration's EPA Administrator, has issued two critical letters outlining the state’s clean water compliance failures and a backlog of state plans on air pollution. In both instances, many other states have similar or worse records but did not receive the same scrutiny. Wheeler’s letters have threatened to withhold federal funds from the state for non-compliance, in what is seen as a new, unusual, and rather potent use of the environmental law by the EPA.

When questioned, Mr. Wheeler claimed that the letters were not retaliation against the state for its liberal policies; however, William K. Reilly, who headed the EPA under the first President George Bush, is skeptical. “I’d be surprised if the EPA administrator could defend this letter and keep a straight face,” he said.

Barry Rabe is the J. Ira and Nicki Harris Family Professor of Public Policy at the Ford School. He is also the Arthur Thurnau Professor of Environmental Policy and holds courtesy appointments in the Program in the Environment, the Department of Political Science, and the School for Environment and Sustainability. Barry was recently a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and continues to serve as a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His research examines climate and energy politics and his newest book, Can We Price Carbon? (MIT Press) was released in spring 2018.