California Senate passes package to offset Trump on environment

Source: Anne C. Mulkern, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, June 1, 2017

California’s Senate yesterday stepped up promised efforts to push back against the Trump administration, passing a package of bills to protect federal standards in the Golden State, even if rules are repealed or softened nationally.

“We won’t allow Californians to suffer the consequences of Donald Trump’s reckless slash-and-burn approach to the environment,” state Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de León (D) said in a statement. “These measures safeguard public health and ensure we continue to make policy based on the best available science, not ‘alternative facts’ or polluter propaganda.”

The “Preserve California” trio of measures included S.B. 49, the “California Environmental Defense Act,” from de León and state Sen. Henry Stern (D). It would make existing federal clean air, climate, clean water, worker safety and endangered species standards enforceable under state law.

S.B. 49 would require state agencies to adopt standards “at least as stringent” as baseline levels in the federal Clean Air Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Water Pollution Control Act and Endangered Species Act and other federal laws “relating to environmental protection, natural resources, or public health.” That would mean those would stay at current levels in California if they were weakened nationally.

It would use the federal standards in effect as of Jan. 1, 2016, or Jan. 1, 2017, whichever is more stringent. The measure would prohibit state or local agencies from revising their rules to make them less stringent than those baseline standards, though they could adopt more stringent ones.

Another bill, S.B. 50, the “Public Lands Protection Act,” from state Sen. Ben Allen (D), aims to thwart any effort to sell federal lands to private developers. It would give the California State Lands Commission the right to buy any for-sale federal land first, or to arrange the transfer to a third party. Another buyer could get it only if that state agency turned down the purchase.

It would prohibit local counties from recording a deed that says a private interest has purchased federal land, unless that buyer can show that the State Lands Commission was given the right of first refusal and didn’t take it.

“The Senate made a strong statement that our national parks and national monuments are not for sale,” Allen said in a statement. “With the passage of this legislation, California will have the power to block the sale or lease of these public treasures.”

S.B. 51, the “Whistleblower and Public Data Protection Act,” from state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D), offers safeguards for U.S. EPA attorneys, scientists and others “who report cover ups, destruction of information, or other wrongdoing.” Those people might have federal whistleblower protection but could still lose their professional certifications under California law, a statement on the measure said.

Federal employees could not lose their state license for revealing violations of law, unethical actions or dangers to public health and safety, the bill says. It also would direct state environmental and public health agencies to protect any information or data under state law, even if the Trump administration orders its censorship or destruction.

Jackson said in a statement said it will “ensure that climate change and other scientific data so critical to our future remains intact and accessible to scientists for years to come.”

All the measures must still pass the state Assembly. Democrats control both chambers with a two-thirds majority. There is likely to be support in the Assembly, though “we’re not taking anything for granted,” said Ann Notthoff, director of California advocacy for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which supports the measures.

Business group opposition

The California Chamber of Commerce and a coalition of business trade groups oppose S.B. 49 and S.B. 50. The chamber called S.B. 49 a “job-killer.”

“S.B. 49 is a premature, overbroad, and vague response to actions that could be undertaken in the future … while in the present creating substantial uncertainty for businesses in advance of any such potential changes, and correspondingly greatly increasing the potential for costly litigation,” the chamber and others said in a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee before it voted on the bill.

“If there is interest in preserving various federal environmental laws, we believe a targeted approach where state agencies respond to federal action on a case-by-case basis is more appropriate,” the letter added.

The letter from the chamber and others said “the extent of the costs associated with this mandate is currently unknown but will be significant for state agencies to implement the mandates.”

David Pettit, a senior attorney at NRDC, said S.B. 49 is needed to preserve protections like the federal ozone standard. Obama administration EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in 2015 lowered the ozone standard to 70 parts per billion, citing the need to protect public health. Several lawsuits were filed challenging the rule. The Trump administration has told the court that it’s going to rethink the current ozone number, Pettit said. Separately, several measures in Congress are looking at the standard.

If an EPA rule or Congress-passed law allowed a higher level of ozone, the 70 ppb would still apply in California, he said. Businesses with air emissions would have to follow that level in the state.

S.B. 49 also would add to California’s air rules all the pollutants the federal Clean Air Act regulates, Pettit said. That includes particulate matter. Right now, there’s a debate in California about whether state rules control particulate matter, he said.

“This would put an end to the discussion,” he said, because the existing federal law would apply in California.

S.B. 49 would provide protection to important endangered species, said Kate Poole, senior attorney with NRDC’s water program. There are several that are not on California’s endangered list because “it’s always operated sort of in tandem” with the federal Endangered Species Act, she said.

Those species include orcas, southern sea otters, sea turtles and the California red-legged frog, made famous in Mark Twain’s short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”

The chamber and other business groups said S.B. 50 likely is unnecessary.

“Although we understand the intent behind SB 50, we also question its need given recent statements by President Donald J. Trump’s Administration regarding land transfers in the West,” said a letter they sent to the Senate Appropriations Committee. “At a recent Outdoor Industry Association event, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke was publicly quoted as saying ‘I’m adamantly opposed to the sale or transfer of public lands. So is my boss.'”