California official blasts EPA head over car standard negotiations

California official blasts EPA head over car standard negotiations
© Courtesy of the California Air Resources Board

A case of ‘he said, she said’ took over a congressional committee Thursday, as the head of California’s Air Resources Board argued with a nonpresent EPA head over the circumstances surrounding the end to key pollution talks.

Testifying on Capitol Hill in front of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, Chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board Mary Nichols addressed an “elephant in the room” denying the account of EPA head Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerOvernight Energy: Trump officials formally revoke California emissions waiver | EPA's Wheeler dodges questions about targeting San Francisco over homelessness | 2020 Dems duke it out at second climate forum EPA head dodges questions about environmental action against San Francisco Yang floats nominating Inslee as 'climate czar' MORE that California was responsible for ending negotiations over a high tension vehicle emissions rule.

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“California is not here because we are seeking to defy the federal government. We are in the business of setting emissions standards for vehicles based on the provisions of the Clean Air Act, which recognizes the important fact that California is very big and has some of the biggest markets for vehicles and also has some of the worst air quality in the United States,” she said.

Nichols's testimony in front of the committee comes as the Trump administration is working to finalize a national rule on vehicle emissions standards that would replace and weaken regulations previously determined under President Obama. Trump officials, including Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Andrew Wheeler, argued the old rule was too onerous for the car industry and not effective.

California has a waiver under the Clean Air Act to set its own air pollution standards at a level higher than might be determined by the federal government. In the case of the Obama administration's car emissions rule, the state and the federal government worked together to agree on one national standard, much to the delight of the auto industry.

Yet, the Trump administration has questioned California’s right to the waiver and the new rule would most likely divide the state and the federal government. Negotiations between the Golden State and administration reportedly broke down in February following the EPA’s August release of a final proposed emissions rule.

Neither group has spoken together since about the rule, and it became clear Thursday that there still remains disagreement over who is responsible for end to communications.

“Each time the Trump Administration has been unwilling to find a way that works, their claim that California offered no counter proposal is false. They unilaterally decided to cut off communications, an action that automakers oppose,” Nichols read from her opening statement.

She added: “I stand by every single word in that paragraph.”

Nichols comments were responding to a letter Wheeler sent Thursday morning to Republican lawmakers and was later circulated to the press, critiquing Nichols’ pre-written testimony before the committee.

In the letter, Wheeler told Reps. John ShimkusJohn Mondy ShimkusHere are the lawmakers who aren't seeking reelection in 2020 Wave of GOP retirements threatens 2020 comeback Illinois Rep. Shimkus won't run for reelection MORE (R-Ill) and Kathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Ore.) that Nichols’s account of the communications break down between California and the Trump administration was “false” and a “conspiracy theory”

Nichols told lawmakers Thursday that the letter was “shocking.”

“I was under the belief that the meetings themselves were confidential,” she said.

“I would state categorically that we proposed areas where we would be willing to come to a compromise with the admin and we never were told precisely what was wrong with any of those proposals. We were simply told they were inadequate and we had simply failed in our jobs by not bringing a proposal that the administration found acceptable.”

Lawmakers at the hearing made strides to try to bring officials from the Trump Administration and CARB back to the table.

“The elephant in the room is, are you guys talking or are you not?,” said Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) in a moment of bi-partisanship. “It could be ‘he said, she said’ but we aren’t going to know that until we get focused.”

He suggested both Nichols and Wheeler get into a room together and sort it out and come back to the negotiating table.

“We want a national standard, we don’t want to destroy the interstate commerce clause, we want it to proceed.”

The heightened tension between the two camps come as the auto industry asking the Trump administration to work with California on a unified standard — one that won’t cause the industry more money to develop cars with separate sets of emissions releases. The issue also comes as the world faces rising global temperature and an increase in weather-related natural disasters.

“The current proposal we believe, and I think this is what the auto industry has said, by taking away the year over year improvements (on air pollution), does take away a major incentive for continuous improvement by the industry. So we think it’s a step backwards,” Nichols said.

California representatives have knocked the rule as doing too little. The state’s Attorney General threatened to sue if it were to be implemented.

Rep. Debbie DingellDeborah (Debbie) Ann DingellOvernight Energy: Trump to revoke California's tailpipe waiver | Democrats propose bill to revoke Trump endangered species rollback | Trump officials finalize rule allowing fewer inspectors at pork plants Democrats propose bill to revoke Trump endangered species rollback Polling director: Young voters swayed by health care, economy, gun control MORE (D-Mich.) whose constituents include the American auto industry, agreed that the Obama administration's rule wasn’t perfect, but criticized the Trump administration’s handling of the problem.

“It’s hard to make projections far into the future and it’s clear we need to make some tweaks, but we don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” she said. “The trump administration has been reckless in proposing these flatline standards that would hurt jobs in my state and harm the environment as well.”

Dingell asked Nichols if she’d be willing to come back to the negotiation table.

“We have always been prepared to go to the negotiating table in good faith,” she said. “We still are.”