Environmental Protection Agency chief Andrew Wheeler sent a letter on Tuesday to the California Air Resources Board informing the agency that the EPA would withhold federal highway funds from the state if it did not rapidly improve its air quality. The letter induced whiplash for California officials who just days ago filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration fighting for the state’s right to set air pollution limits that are stricter than the federal standards after Trump said he would revoke California’s legal authority to set its own stringent tailpipe regulations. California Gov. Gavin Newsom called Wheeler’s threat to withhold the highway funds a “brazen political stunt” that “completely contradicts the one from a week ago taking away the waiver to do exactly what they suggest we should be doing.”
The letter states that California has a backlog of state-level pollution control plans that must be immediately addressed or the EPA will withhold billions of dollars in federal transportation funding. Wheeler wrote that the state “has failed to carry out its most basic tasks under the Clean Air Act,” and asserted that “California’s chronic air quality problems are not the result of ... this Administration’s regulatory reform efforts.” The EPA has given California until Oct. 10 to respond to their demands; if the state does not, the EPA can begin withholding highway funding within 24 months. “We certainly want to avoid these statutory triggers, but our foremost concern must be ensuring clean air for all Americans,” Wheeler wrote.