How California will shape U.S. environmental policy under Biden

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SAN FRANCISCO — California’s climate titans are ready to come in from the cold.

Donald Trump spent the last four years trying to rein in California’s vast influence on American emissions, energy and environmental policy, given that any rule made by the nation’s biggest state ripples through the national economy. That ends in just over two months, when Joe Biden enters the Oval Office, and has consequences that stretch well beyond the Golden State, as key California officials regain their clout in Washington.

“We’re looking forward to some tailwinds, because all we’ve had is headwinds,” CalEPA Secretary Jared Blumenfeld, the state’s top environmental official, said in an interview. “We’ve spent so much time and energy just defending ourselves. The idea of being able to partner with the federal government and sit down and collaborate is almost foreign.”

Blumenfeld said California officials are eager to help Biden model federal policy in the Golden State’s image. “The really ambitious goals that he has in his plan, a lot of them are modeled on California,” he said. “We really want to work with the administration to show what is possible. Whether it’s his goal of getting 2035 carbon-free energy or how we think about zero-emission vehicles or building standards or all the things we’ve done over the last 30 years, what we want to do is work with him to scale that.”

One positive sign for California: The state’s long-serving climate and air pollution chief, Mary Nichols, is considered a top contender to become U.S. EPA administrator. Legal experts see Biden’s administration prioritizing a restoration of California’s legal ability to tackle greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, especially if Nichols is named administrator.

"She could do a lot right away," said Ethan Elkind, director of the climate program at UC Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy & the Environment. "She can drop lawsuits right away. She can request courts to drop bad regulations and start over. She can at least stop the bad regulations from an environmental perspective right away and settle lawsuits with environmental groups right away. She can really ramp up enforcement right away. Starting new regulations is what takes time."

Procedurally, the Biden administration could enter into negotiations over the 50-odd lawsuits Attorney General Xavier Becerra has lodged over environmental rules. The new administration will be checking to see whether any suits can be dismissed or settled based on commitments to reverse course.

"That’s probably going to be the most time-sensitive in many ways," said Rick Frank, a former California chief deputy attorney general. The strategy is similar to the Bush-to-Obama handover, "but this is pretty much on steroids compared to that, in terms of the number and consequence of cases."

Here are some key areas of California environmental policy where a Biden administration could significantly change direction:

Climate

Reversing the Trump EPA’s approach to California climate policies begins here: the agency’s withdrawal of permission under the Clean Air Act for California to impose greenhouse gas standards on vehicles and mandate zero-emission car sales.

Under Trump, the agency revoked the state’s Clean Air Act waiver — going further than former President George W. Bush, who denied California the waiver. President Barack Obama reversed that move, brokering national emissions standards jointly with California, and Biden is expected to quickly swing the pendulum back toward cooperation with the Golden State.

"Without that waiver in place and the ability to be more aggressive, it just really kneecaps California’s whole climate program," Elkind said.

Biden’s EPA could immediately grant the waiver, letting California move forward with its own standards for model years 2016-25 and at the same time restoring the rules of 13 other states that had agreed to follow California’s lead. The agency may also attempt to withdraw Trump’s rule that slashed emission-reduction targets and reinstate the Obama-era regulation on the national level. Both are certain to draw legal challenges.

"Either we’ll see a very quick effort by the Biden administration to reimpose the Obama 2016-2025 standards, or we’ll see California move forward with a waiver from the EPA," said Ann Carlson, co-director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA School of Law. "I imagine there’ll be a national effort. What that looks like and whether the car companies cooperate and whether there’s a challenge remains to be seen."

The state is also likely to apply for waivers on other climate and clean air policies, having held out for a new administration to receive its petitions. California will look to move its Advanced Clean Trucks rule requiring manufacturers to increase the proportion of electric trucks they sell in the state through 2035 and Newsom’s executive order in September to ban new gas vehicles by 2035.

Water

Besides climate change, the other California environmental policy arena the Trump administration has sought to rein in has been water. Trump has catered to farmers by seeking to increase pumping from the state’s main water hub, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, both through executive order and by revising protections for fish under the Endangered Species Act.

"Probably water allocation and climate change would be the two big pivots and increased opportunity for collaboration between California and the federal government after 4 years of conflicts and really outright warfare," said Frank, the former California chief deputy attorney general. He is now a professor at UC Davis law school.

Biden could choose to stop defending the endangered species rules in court against Becerra and environmentalists, though it would be more complicated than just stopping proceedings. In general, Biden’s administration would have to find legal flaws in the Trump rules that would justify the courts handing them back to the agencies.

Under Trump, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation also jump-started plans to increase water storage on the Sacramento River by raising the height of Shasta Dam, against the state’s wishes. That’s likely to lose momentum, Frank said.

But federal movement on California water will likely be slower than on climate. If Biden tries to undo Trump’s endangered species rules, he could also trigger a revolt from water users who had come to the table to discuss related water quality rules with Gov. Gavin Newsom that could reduce deliveries.

The head of the group representing the 27 water agencies that draw from the state-owned side of the canals and reservoirs said she hoped Biden would cooperate with the state.

“Water is a bipartisan issue. Regardless of where you may fall on the political spectrum, we all rely on clean, affordable water to run our homes, farms and businesses,” State Water Contractors general manager Jennifer Pierre said in a statement. “President-elect Joe Biden has indicated a commitment to cooperation, which is exactly what we need as California looks to settle lawsuits collaboratively and work together to achieve Voluntary Agreements that improve habitat and flow in the Delta and its watersheds.”

Wildfires

An out-of-control wildfire has no friends in California. So, at the least, a Biden administration promises to put an end to federal attacks on state’s forest management policies and Trump’s head-scratching calls for raking California’s forests. It’s not clear Biden will be able to break the logjam that’s resulted in overgrown forests that, along with climate change, are fueling the state’s record-setting blazes.

Neither the Trump administration nor the Obama administration did much to help California manage its forests — the majority of which are owned by the federal government — either by mechanically thinning out trees or by conducting prescribed burns to clear out underbrush, according to Bill Stewart, a forestry specialist at UC Berkeley.

The U.S. Forest Service signed an agreement with the state in August to try to treat 1 million acres per year. It’s a welcome move in need of funding.

"I don’t think that’s a game changer," Stewart said. "They claim they’re going to treat all these acres; neither the feds nor California are really doing that much on that. To make that operational, you really have to bring in more people that have practical experience that were not involved in either the Obama or Trump administration on this kind of stuff."

Still, Biden could push the Forest Service and FEMA to treat forest management as a climate issue, which could lead the agencies to improve risk modeling and spend more on protecting communities in forested areas. Spending on deferred forest maintenance could also create jobs, a wildfire policy expert said.

"Trump would show up and say the problem was raking the forest," said Michael Wara, director of the climate and energy program at Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment and chair of a state commission dealing with wildfire cost and liability. "Biden’s Interior Department is much more likely to be constructive on this and work to develop consensus and then fund the actions. Go to Congress and get the money to do things that will keep rural communities safe. That’s a big change."

Fossil fuel drilling

The Trump administration plans to open hundreds of thousands of acres of public land in California to oil and gas drilling despite legal challenges. The Bureau of Land Management is scheduled to hold its first lease sale in the state since 2012 on Dec. 10.

Environmentalists say Biden could revise two resource management plans that allow oil and gas leasing: one that covers 725,000 acres in the Central Coast and San Francisco Bay Area, and another that covers 1 million acres in the Central Valley and Central Coast. Those groups are planning to challenge next month’s sale in Kern County, but they also say Biden’s BLM could cancel leases if they find they were improperly issued.

"The lease sale was illegal, therefore the leases should be revoked by the Biden administration, and that’s what we’re going to be asking for," said Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Center.

The upcoming lease sale also provides an indicator of Trump’s approach to the waning days of his presidency — and how many more environmental policies Biden will be called to reverse.

"Is the Trump administration in this transition period post-election and pre-inaguration going to stand down?" Frank said. "Or is it going to go pedal to the metal to lock in as many of these plans and grant leases and other things as possible?"

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