State Autonomy Doesn’t Operate at the Convenience of the President

Photo by Matt Rath/Chesapeake Bay Program

Trump’s attacks on state environmental protections aren’t just ironic—they’re dangerous. Traffic contributes to smog in downtown Los Angeles, California. The following commentary by National Resources Defense Council Interim President and Chief Counsel, Mitchell Bernard, was published as a blog on the NRDC website (, September 23, 2019.

Whose job is it to protect the environment—the states’ or the federal government’s? For President Trump, the answer depends on what he wants to pollute next.

When his goal is to allow pollution of our rivers, wetlands, lakes, and streams, he feels it’s best to defer to the states. That’s what his administration said earlier this month when it weakened needed federal protections for tens of millions of acres of wetlands and millions of miles of small streams.

When Trump wants to enable more pollution of the air we breathe, he takes power away from the states—by, for example, denying California its authority to set auto emissions standards that exceed the national minimum, as he announced last week.

Trump, in other words, is all for states’ rights so long as states go easy on polluters. When they try to protect the environment for our citizens, though, Trump calls in the feds.

But crying hypocrisy, while true, misses the point. There’s no legal or ethical principle guiding Trump’s reckless attack on clean water and air, or, for that matter, his efforts to hasten and worsen the growing dangers and rising costs of climate change. There’s only this: Polluter profits and fan-the-base optics are more important to Trump than leaving our children a livable world.

That’s not leadership. It’s a betrayal of our values, our interests, and our aspirations as a nation.

Since president Richard Nixon created the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency five decades ago, state and federal governments have shared the responsibility of protecting the environment and public health.

Since pollution doesn’t recognize state lines, our federal government puts in place minimum standards that apply everywhere to protect our waters, air, wildlife, lands, and all they support. States create and enforce safeguards to do just that. They are, in that sense, our first responders.

This is how federalism works. States have autonomy to govern themselves, while citizens have the assurance that everyone will play by a consistent set of rules that reflect the values we share as Americans.

The Clean Water Rule is an example of how this plays out in practice. Put in place in 2015, the Rule clarified protections, under the Clean Water Act, for the wetlands, ponds, and small streams we all depend on for recreation, flood control, irrigation, and other purposes. That clarity is important, providing states with the guidance they need to protect the drinking water sources for one in every three Americans.

Last week the Trump administration announced it will formally repeal the Clean Water Rule, putting our wetlands and waters at risk. In its place, the administration proposes to formalize, in December, a poor substitute that will invite refineries, factories, power plants, industrial animal feedlots, commercial developers, and others to pollute these waterways with impunity.

What possible excuse might Trump offer for giving polluters a free pass to contaminate our waters? Well, he claimed the rule was what EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, called “an egregious power grab” taking away authority from the states.

So long as water flows downhill, though, we need national water quality protections, unless we want the pollution from one state to flow downstream into another. And we don’t.

Similarly, as Trump rushes to expose the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the hazard and harm of oil and gas drilling, he’s relying on the state of Alaska to back him, brushing aside federal protections for the refuge as well as protective provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act.

Trump does an about-face on states’ authority, though, when states try to protect their citizens against pollution.

When states like New York, Maryland, and Delaware sought protection in 2017 from air pollution blowing across their borders from upwind states like Ohio and Indiana, Trump rejected their pleas and refused to place needed pollution limits on the upwind polluters.

When states like New York and Washington have attempted to protect their waters from threats posed by projects like pipelines, hydroelectric dams, and wetland fills, the Trump administration has proposed to curb their authority to weigh in on federal permitting issues.

Now Trump is trying to keep California from protecting its citizens against dangerous pollution from cars.

For the past five decades, California has been allowed to create air pollution standards that exceed those in the 1970 Clean Air Act. The statute permits that. Suddenly this matters to Trump, and he’s working to take that authority away. Why? He’s proposed weakening clean car and energy efficiency standards the Obama administration put in place, and California’s not letting him get away with it.

Under the Obama-era standards, new cars would average 51.4 miles per gallon by 2025—nearly double what the standards were when the rule was enacted in 2012. The efficiency gains would save our families billions of dollars a year at the pump while cutting the dangerous carbon pollution that’s driving climate change by about six billion tons over the new cars’ lifetime.

Trump wants to reduce that average to 37 miles per gallon, all but eliminating those benefits.

Traffic contributes to smog in downtown Los Angeles, California. Photo by Bret Hartman/Reuters

California struck back, saying its existing standards, which aligned with the Obama rule, should stand. Thirteen other states go along with California’s standards. Ford, Honda, Volkswagen, and BMW have sided with California and agreed to deliver national fleets that reach the carbon-emissions equivalent of nearly 50 miles per gallon by 2026.

Suddenly state environmental protection, Trump believes, is a very bad idea.

The truth is, we all have a responsibility to protect the environment and public health at the state, local, and national levels. This isn’t something that should divide us, red state and blue. It’s something that should unite us all, as Americans.


By Mitchell Bernard


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