Energy & Environment

Leading California’s legal charge


California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D) insists that he doesn’t have an ax to grind with the Trump administration, but he’s not afraid to give the president all he’s got when it comes to defending the environment.

“We’re not looking to pick a fight, but we’re ready for one,” Becerra says.

With Republicans controlling both houses of Congress in addition to the White House, much of the resistance to President Trump’s policies has come at the state level from Democratic attorneys general such as Becerra.

{mosads}For the Golden State, that has meant 19 separate environmental lawsuits since Trump took office, including nine specifically aimed at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The legal onslaught against the administration, and specifically EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, has helped earn Becerra the reputation of an anti-Trump crusader.

Becerra, the son of Mexican immigrants who grew up in Northern California before moving to Los Angeles and serving the state as a congressman for 24 years, says that California did not purposefully take the lead on many of the environmental suits, but he doesn’t apologize for them.

“Our lawsuits weren’t driven by a desire to be out there first, to challenge an action by the administration simply because they were doing an action. It was because we were protecting California and its people and our values,” he said. Which, he added, “ultimately protects the values and interests of people throughout the country.”

Becerra acknowledges, however, that California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) might have been considering the battle with the White House when he appointed him as the state’s top law enforcement officer.

“I don’t think there was any doubt that we knew we were — as a state that’s leading the way on many of these [environmental] issues — going to be a target on many of the actions that candidate Trump talked about,” Becerra said in recent interview with The Hill.

The lawsuits California has filed since include challenges to the EPA’s decision not to implement the Clean Power Plan and its decision to change vehicle fuel-emission standards, as well as a more recent suit against the agency for failing to implement a landfill methane rule.

“No one, including the occupant of the White House, is above the law,” Becerra says. “So we all have to share the real facts and we have to respect the law, and on both accounts I think the Trump administration, including the EPA and Administrator Scott Pruitt, have failed miserably.”

California’s first Hispanic attorney general was born when the state was grappling with the effects of intense smog pollution, and he remembers the major oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara in 1969. He said pushing to protect the state’s rights to keep stringent environmental rules is part of its DNA — and his own.

“I still submit to almost anyone that the greatest environmentalists in our country are poor folks. Poor folks are not just environmentalists by choice, but they are environmentalists by necessity,” Becerra said, nodding to his early life near farms. “Growing up it was not a choice, it was a necessity for me to be a good steward of the land and the water. Now as attorney general it just makes good sense and it is a necessity.”

He said Californians, most of whom recently lived through a multiyear drought, have to face environmental issues head-on.

“As Californians we don’t have a choice. It’s a necessity for us to protect our resources because we don’t have enough water, there’s too much pollution in our air,” he said.

And a number of the state’s legal challenges have been successful.

California and others have forced the administration’s hand on at least 12 instances related to the environment. Wins include a recent EPA reversal on the suspension of a chemical requirement that aimed to help farmworkers handling toxic pesticides.

The policy reversal came less than a month after California, Maryland and New York filed a joint lawsuit against the EPA that argued that suspending the rule would hurt the laborers.

However, California’s biggest battle against the EPA likely still looms ahead: a fight against the agency’s plans to lower the current vehicle emissions standard, which could have an enormous impact on the West Coast.

The EPA declared in April that the Obama-era greenhouse gas rules for cars made between 2022 and 2025 are too ambitious and should be eased, setting up a fight with the Golden State, which currently sets its own car emissions rules and has argued for strong regulations. Twelve other states currently follow those rules, accounting for a third of the nation’s car market.

Just prior to making the announcement, Pruitt told Bloomberg News that California “can’t dictate to the rest of the country” what the emissions levels should be. The EPA has not submitted a final rule change on the topic, but it’s expected this summer.

Becerra at the time called the decision “politically motivated.” Nowadays he says he pays less attention to the reasoning behind the Trump administration’s actions and says he focuses on how his suits can help the country.

“Every one of the 17 or 18 lawsuits on the environment and half of those against EPA are going to help not just California but the entire nation and the people of the country,” said Becerra.

“Where California goes so goes the nation — so when we protect the clean car standards for California, we’re not just protecting the air that Californians breathe, we’re protecting the air that everyone breathes.”

The number of lawsuits he’s lodged against the administration has led to attacks, including during a recent Democratic primary, that Becerra is “obsessed with Donald Trump,” spending too many resources on fighting the White House and not enough on state issues.

Becerra, however, won the early June primary by double digits. He will face Republican Steven Bailey, a retired judge, in November’s general election.

Speaking a week after the win, Becerra showed no intention of slowing down his legal actions.

“We’re going to do what it takes to continue to keep California moving forward,” he said. “We’re not going to sit back. We’re not going to spectate. And we’re going to take charge of our own destiny.”

Tags Donald Trump Scott Pruitt Xavier Becerra

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