By Daniel Reich
The devastating fires that engulfed both ends of our state have claimed at least 85 lives. The causes of such fires are complex, but scientists agree that climate change plays a prominent role.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency acknowledges that greenhouse gases (GHGs) trap heat and make the planet warmer — creating the conditions for more severe fires.
And yet, Trump’s EPA is proposing regulations that will increase the release of GHGs from cars and power plants. The predicted result: higher temperatures, longer droughts and a “fire season” that burns year-round.
At issue are standards for light duty vehicles — like your car or pickup truck — which represent 60 percent of the GHG emissions from U.S. transportation. This summer, the Trump administration announced that it will abandon the fuel economy standards for those vehicles developed by the Obama administration for 2022–25.
Instead, it will freeze the standard at the 2021 level. This move will allow the release of an additional 2.2 billion metric tons of GHGs by 2040 — the equivalent of putting an additional 37 million cars on the road, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
California has set more stringent GHG standards for light duty vehicles, which have been adopted by several other states. But the Trump administration wants to take away California’s legal authority to issue its own stricter regulations.
These changes makes no sense, especially when fuel-efficient automotive technology is growing in sophistication and popularity, as evidenced by the brisk sales of electric and hybrid vehicles.
Not surprisingly, a battle is brewing. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra put it bluntly: “My message to the federal government: Do your job. Withdraw this proposal. Fulfill your duty under federal law to protect all Californians and Americans from harmful GHG emissions and to conserve energy.”
The Trump administration’s efforts to roll back emissions standards do not end with weakened fuel economy. EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler is now leading the charge to replace President Obama’s Clean Power Plan.
Obama’s plan would have reduced GHGs by a third by retiring outdated coal-fired power plants. And, because those plants produce a host of other harmful pollutants, the Clean Power Plan would have also prevented 3,600 premature deaths and 90,000 asthma attacks per year.
In contrast, the new plan–by the Trump administration’s own analysis — would have negligible impacts on GHGs, while increasing premature deaths by 1,400 and new cases of asthma by 48,000.
Perhaps it won’t surprise you to learn that Wheeler was a former coal lobbyist whose clients included Murray Energy, the largest privately-held coal company in the United States.
Trump’s EPA has also proposed to roll back controls on hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) used in refrigeration equipment. HFCs are 1,430 times more potent than carbon dioxide in warming the atmosphere.
The battle over regulating GHG emissions is now headed to court. The Trump administration has taken the position that Congress has not provided the legal authority for the EPA to regulate GHGs. If the Supreme Court sides with the Trump administration, then Congress must act on its own to authorize EPA to regulate GHGs.
The stakes are high. If we fail to curb GHG emissions, we must brace for a hotter, more fiery future. Conflagrations like the Woolsey Fire and Camp Fire will become the norm, along with choking smog and skyrocketing property insurance. Even those far from the flames will suffer from asthma attacks and shortened lives.
But this dystopian scenario does not need to be our fate. By urging our elected officials to rein in emissions from cars and power plants, we can choose a healthier, safer future for all.
Daniel Reich was an assistant regional counsel at EPA Region 9 in San Francisco for 27 years. He also served as a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice before retiring in April 2017 with 33 years of federal service. He is a member of the Environmental Protection Network, an organization that includes former EPA career employees and political appointees working to preserve the nation’s bipartisan progress toward clean air, water and climate protection.
This op-ed was published in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation. It was originally published December 12, 2018 in East Bay Times.