WASHINGTON — President Trump’s political feud with California has spread collateral damage across more than a dozen other states, which have seen their regulatory authority curtailed and their autonomy threatened by a Trump administration intent on weakening the environmental statutes of the country’s most populous state.
When the administration last month revoked California’s authority to set state-level standards on climate-warming tailpipe emissions, it simultaneously stripped that power from 13 other states that follow California’s standards and ensured that no other state could set fuel-efficiency standards in the future. The Environmental Protection Agency last week followed up with letters to California that threatened to wield rarely used provisions of environmental law to withhold federal funding from the state if it did not take specific steps to clean its air and water.
“This is new and unusual,” said Jeffrey Holmstead, a Republican lawyer who served in the E.P.A. in both Bush administrations. “E.P.A. has in the past been reluctant to use the very potent mechanism of withholding federal funding, as long as the state is acting in good faith.”
“But,” he added, “there’s obviously some bad blood.”
The maneuvers reversed the traditional positions of the two parties. Republicans have often claimed the mantle of protectors of states’ rights, and the prerogative of state governments as the laboratories of democracy. Democrats have often championed the pre-eminence of Washington over the states in battles over civil rights and health care. That has not always been the case. Republicans in Washington have tried to block state assisted-suicide laws, for instance, while Democrats have championed liberal state laws, for example on gun control.
The fight over California’s fuel-economy standards fits into that last category, but legal experts said the Trump administration’s actions are new. They amount to a novel weaponizing of environmental laws intended not only to undermine California’s liberal government but to send a message to other states that might defy Mr. Trump.
“It looks like a search-and-destroy, and it sends a chilling message to other states,” said Barry Rabe, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan.
In this case, critics noted, the Clean Air Act specifically offered states the ability to set their own environmental standards if Washington grants them a waiver.
“This is a very powerful tool that the Clean Air Act gives to the states,” said Phil Weiser, the attorney general of Colorado. “To pull the rug out from states, to do something this prescriptive, this stepping-on-states’ rights, is a threat to the very principle of states’ rights.”
The E.P.A. administrator, Andrew Wheeler, said this week that the administration believed in states’ rights, to a point. California’s economic power is so great that its policies have gravitational force far beyond its border: “We embrace federalism and the role of the states,” Mr. Wheeler said, “but federalism does not mean that one state can dictate standards for the nation.”
But impugning California’s commitment to clean air and water struck William K. Reilly, who headed the E.P.A. under the first President George Bush, as disingenuous, he said. The state, he said, is “historically the originator of the most innovative and successful air pollution controls” in the country.
“I’d be surprised if the E.P.A administrator could defend this letter and keep a straight face,” he said.
Mr. Wheeler did just that on Wednesday when he was asked if his letters to California were political retaliation for the state’s efforts against his policies.
“No, not at all,” he said. “We found a lot of discrepancies between the way California is operating their water programs compared to others states.”
Mr. Wheeler announced last month that the E.P.A. would revoke a waiver granted to California by the Obama administration that allowed the state to establish its own tough fuel economy standards for cars sold into its giant market. That waiver had been granted under the 1970 Clean Air Act, which allows states to set tighter emissions standards.
Because vehicle emissions represent the nation’s largest source of planet-warming greenhouse gases, the legal authority under the Clean Air Act represents one of the most powerful tools that states can use to combat climate change. Under the law, any other state could enact standards in line with California’s, and 13 states had done so before the administration wiped them out. Two other states, Minnesota and New Mexico, had planned to join California’s standards.
Twenty-three states have now sued the Trump administration over the move. While not all of those states followed the California standard, attorneys general for the states said they saw the move as an unlawful infringement on states’ rights that would prevent them from taking action to combat climate change in the future.
All the state attorneys general on to the suit are Democrats, but some represent states that Mr. Trump won in 2016, or hope to win in 2020, including North Carolina, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan and New Mexico.
“The Trump administration has assaulted states’ rights,” said Josh Shapiro, the attorney general of Pennsylvania, “and Exhibit A is this clean cars law, where states have taken it upon ourselves to protect our citizens and now they are unlawfully trying to strip us of our authority.”
Collateral damage aside, Mr. Trump has seen the moves as focused on California, which has filed 60 lawsuits against the Trump administration over issues ranging from immigration to health care. Even as the threat of impeachment swamps his presidency, Mr. Trump remains fixated on California.
On Wednesday, he said, “We just sent a violation to the city of San Francisco, unsafe water, unsafe conditions.”
“With all the talk about the E.P.A.,” he continued, “there’s needles and drugs all over the street, there’s tents, there’s people that are dying in squalor in the best location in San Francisco.”
Mr. Trump was enraged in July when four automakers that opposed his plan to roll back the Obama administration’s vehicle pollution standard had signed a deal with California to comply with its tighter emissions standards, even if the broader rollback goes through.
If other automakers signed on to the deal, as California has encouraged them to do, it would render Mr. Trump’s rollback moot.
Last week, Mr. Wheeler sent a pair of highly unusual letters to Sacramento. One noted that California has the nation’s largest backlog of incomplete or inactive state-level plans to address certain types of air pollution, and threatened to impose penalties such as withholding highway funds if the backlog is not addressed. While many other states have similar backlogs, none have received such letters, according to Miles Keough, head of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies.
The second letter accused the state of failing in its obligations to meet clean water standards, accusing it of “deficiencies that have led to public health concerns.” Again the E.P.A. issued a veiled threat that federal funding could be at risk.
But data on the E.P.A.’s own website indicates that at least 40 states have a higher percentage of water systems in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act than California.
Keith Ellison, the attorney general of Minnesota, said he saw in Mr. Wheeler’s letters an implicit threat to any state at odds with Mr. Trump’s deregulatory agenda. “Those letters just look like rank retaliation, punishment,” Mr. Ellison said. “It’s the most abusive approach to states’ rights that I’ve ever seen.”
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Coral Davenport covers energy and environmental policy, with a focus on climate change, from the Washington bureau. She joined The Times in 2013 and previously worked at Congressional Quarterly, Politico and National Journal. @CoralMDavenport • Facebook