California weighs ‘Trump insurance’ bill to keep its environmental laws intact
As the Trump administration’s fight with California over environmental policies escalates, the state’s Democratic leaders are readying a direct shot against any new regulatory rollbacks from the president.
Sacramento legislators are poised to vote this week on a bill that would require state agencies to preserve federal standards on the environment, public health and worker safety that were in place on Jan. 19, 2017 – the day before Donald Trump took office. The provisions would sunset at the end of his potential second term in January 2025.
With the president clearly targeted – the state judiciary committee called the bill “Trump insurance” – the legislation shows the deepening regulatory conflict between the administration and heavily Democratic state as they battle over everything from auto emissions to light bulbs. The California measure, if passed over the objections of local groups such as water districts that don’t want a lock on regulations, could be a template for other states, particularly those with similar politics.
“It’s setting up a structure that other states might choose to use to either authorize or require certain actions by state regulators to preserve environmental and workplace protections,” said William Buzbee, a professor with the Georgetown University Law Center. “Many states might be uncomfortable with legal instability and find the California model attractive.”
Under California bill SB 1 – whose numeral demonstrates its priority for its author, Senate leader Toni Atkins – if federal officials weaken certain regulations, the state’s agencies would have to maintain the protections to be at least on par with the original standards. It also allows citizens to sue over rollbacks under certain circumstances.
States usually follow federal guidelines as the baseline for environmental rules, but the law generally allows them to craft stricter regulations. There are some key exceptions, such as the clean air waiver that is currently at the center of a dispute between the administration and the state, which has reached an agreement with four automakers on tailpipe emissions standards in defiance of Trump’s rollback plan.
But if passed, SB 1 would mean agencies including the state Air Resources Board, the Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board and the Fish and Game Commission would need to monitor federal regulations and react if needed, instead of legislators trying to track and respond to Trump rollbacks individually.
As it is, many of the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back regulatory policies have been mired in litigation. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, often working with counterparts in other states, has filed more than 50 lawsuits and other protests over Trump’s actions, such as watering down rules to stem power plant pollution.
“This fits in with how California is a leader when it comes to protecting the environment and public health,” said Annie Notthoff, who’s working on the bill as the senior western advocacy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The bill has some precedence. California legislators in 2003 passed a similar measure after the administration of President George W. Bush suggested it would roll back certain clean air regulations, but was never applied.
In May, Democratic Oregon Governor Kate Brown signed a law similar to the premise of California’s pending bill while narrower in scope: It requires Oregon agencies to enforce federal air and water regulations as they were before Trump took office.
Opponents say the California bill is draconian and could lock in provisions that are based on outdated scientific information and regulations. The measure could also affect the long-running and contentious battle over water rights. California Senator Dianne Feinstein and four U.S. representatives from the state sent a letter to Atkins and Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom last week saying voluntary agreements on balancing water delivery and habitat restoration could be jeopardized by its passage.
Atkins said in a statement that she “will continue to work to address any concerns by the opposition” for a bill that “puts in place critical protections.” A spokesman for Newsom didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Buzbee, the Georgetown professor, said it’s unlikely the bill, if passed, would trigger “a broad attack under federal law.” It may be contested by a California business chafing at a state rule that is stricter than the government’s, but even then, a challenge would be difficult given federal law generally allows states to adopt more protective measures, he said.
Many Californians support Atkins’s cause. A poll by the Public Policy Institute in July showed that a majority of those surveyed favored state legislators addressing climate change themselves.
“Most Californians are very comfortable with the idea that the state is on a different path and wants the state to take actions related to environmental protection,” Mark Baldassare, president of the center, said in an interview.
Also moving through the Capitol are similar measures to protect birds, hamper oil and gas development on federally-protected lands in the state, and protect the state’s waivers under federal air regulations. Like SB 1, the bills are linked to Trump’s inauguration and when two terms would expire.
For the Trump administration, the fight over environmental standards is more “ideological” than one based on business concerns, said Eric Biber, director of the environmental and energy law programs at the University of California at Berkeley. He pointed to the fact that automakers had supported California’s emissions rules and oil companies don’t want federal relief from methane regulations.
Indeed, the California measure may be one Trump officials welcome.
“I think they like the ideological conflict; they think it makes them look good,” Biber said. “For their base, at least, they think they can point to those crazy Californians. Whether that’s actually a winning political argument is a different story.”