EPA head clashes with California over how car emissions negotiations broke down

EPA head clashes with California over how car emissions negotiations broke down
© Aaron Schwartz

Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerOvernight Energy: Critics call EPA air guidance 'an industry dream' | New Energy secretary says Trump wants to boost coal | EPA looks to speed approval of disputed industry pollution permits Latest EPA guidance weakens air protections in favor of industry, critics say Overnight Energy: Pelosi vows to push for Paris climate goals | Senate confirms Brouillette to succeed Perry at Energy | EPA under attack from all sides over ethanol rule MORE, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is disputing California’s account of how negotiations between the Golden State and the EPA over federal vehicle emissions standards came to an abrupt halt.

In a letter Wheeler sent to Republican lawmakers Thursday morning, he denied previous comments made by California Air Resources Board (CARB) Chairwoman Mary Nichols that her state offered a counter proposal to the EPA’s car emissions rollback, saying her claims are “false” and “conspiracy theories.”

“I believe it is important for the members of the subcommittees to understand that when Ms. Nichols states that she offered a counterproposal to the proposed rule as if she operated as a good faith actor in this rule making, this is what is false,” he wrote in the letter to Reps. Cathy McMorris RodgersCathy McMorris RodgersIsraeli, Palestinian business leaders seek Trump boost for investment project The Suburban Caucus: Solutions for America's suburbs Shimkus announces he will stick with plan to retire after reconsidering MORE (R-Wash.) and John ShimkusJohn Mondy ShimkusHouse to vote on resolution opposing Russia's inclusion in G-7 Shimkus announces he will stick with plan to retire after reconsidering Shimkus says he's reconsidering retirement MORE (R-Ill.)

Nichols is set to testify Thursday in front of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce over the EPA’s proposed Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient Vehicles rule, where she is expected to criticize the rule for failing to provide adequate air pollution controls.

McMorris Rodgers is the top Republican on the panel.

In his letter, Wheeler told the lawmakers that Nichols previously mischaracterized the circumstances leading up to the break down in communications between California and the Trump administration in February over negotiations on the rule.

He said Nichols never offered a complete counterproposal — despite her saying so in her prepared testimony before the committee — since it did not contain approval from outgoing California Gov. Jerry Brown (D), then-incoming Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin Christopher NewsomNewsom jokes after Harris drops 2020 bid ahead of his Iowa campaign events for her: 'I want a reimbursement!' Feinstein endorses Christy Smith for Katie Hill's former House seat Gavin Newsom to campaign for Harris in Iowa MORE (D) or the state’s attorney general.

“Ms. Nichols was unable or unwilling to be a good faith negotiator,” Wheeler said.

It’s a line Wheeler has used before.

Testifying in front of Congress in early April, he blamed the breakdown in talks on California’s unwillingness to compromise.

“We’re always open to hearing from California on this. But to be frank, they did not come back with a credible offer last fall,” Wheeler said. “There is a lot of politics going on in California over this issue.”

In an interview with The Hill in April, Nichols denied Wheeler’s characterization of the talks, calling them “totally inaccurate.”

“It indicates either they didn’t understand what we were proposing or chose not to understand,” she said.

Nichols said the last communication between CARB and the EPA was a proposal her agency sent to make the emissions program simpler for auto companies to comply with. She said her office never got a response.

And then, soon after, came the announcement that the talks were over.

“We felt we had bent over backwards to show how we were willing to accommodate our rules for any concerns industry had. The government position was ideology — not just make a rule more onerous, but gut the rule and prevent California from implementing their own standards,” Nichols said.

Under the Clean Air Act, California has the right to set its own air quality standards. The state previously worked with the Obama administration to determine a universal emissions standard that would narrow vehicle emissions allowances over time. The Trump administration last August issued a proposed rule that would weaken some of those standards, arguing they were unachievable and a burden on the auto industry. Since then California has vowed to sue over the rule once it's finally implemented.

In his letter Thursday Wheeler denied separate claims in Nichols’s testimony that the oil and gas industry played an undue roll in influencing the EPA’s final emissions rule, saying the indication was beneath her.

“Her testimony that EPA professional staff were cut out of this proposal’s development is false,” Wheeler wrote.

“Her testimony that California was cut out of the development of this proposal is her own doing, and her irresponsible testimony about conspiracy theories ‘that the oil industry’ and that it is being done by ‘the former oil and coal industry lobbyists and lawyers who now work in leadership at the Agency’ is beneath the responsibilities of the substantial position she holds.”

House Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee announced Wednesday they were launching an investigation into petroleum companies’ involvement in a Trump administration rollback of Obama-era fuel economy standards for vehicles.

Democrats wrote to Marathon Petroleum and the American Fuel and Petrochemicals Manufacturers to accuse the two of involvements in a "covert lobbying and social media campaign" to support the rollback.