The Press Democrat: California environmental leaders, lawmakers gird for fight against President Trump
Restoring salmon in the Russian River and protecting the North Coast from oil rigs — two long-standing campaigns with broad public support — are among the goals likely to be challenged if not stifled by the sharp right turn of Donald Trump’s administration, environmental advocates and Democratic lawmakers said.
More broadly, the environmental camp fears that landmark legislation, including laws that protect endangered species, clean air and water, are imperiled by Republican control of the House and Senate with an avid deregulation partner in the White House.
The harbingers, they say, include Trump’s trail of tweets and speeches asserting that climate change is a hoax and his post-election appointments of a California water district lobbyist and a prominent climate change denier to head his transition teams at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department, respectively.
Even if Republicans and their allies can’t roll back environmental laws they have long targeted — asserting they harm economic development — the GOP will have nearly unlimited control of national policy and can weaken environmental programs by turning off the cash spigot.
The Sonoma County Water Agency, for example, has received more than $15 million in federal grants in the last four years for a host of water-quality and Russian River watershed projects, including salmon habitat restoration on Dry Creek near Healdsburg, as well as operation of the fish hatchery at nearby Warm Springs Dam on Lake Sonoma.
Under President Trump, such programs may not favor as well in budget allocations, local lawmakers and others fear.
“There’s no question that our bedrock environmental protection laws will be in jeopardy under the next administration,” said Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena. “Gutting environmental protections and abandoning our country’s efforts to shift to clean energy production would be disastrous for our planet, our country and our district.”
The North Bay region is suffering from the impacts of climate change, Thompson said, citing the wildfires that have ravaged Lake County and the state’s ongoing drought. Trump, in a campaign visit to the state this June, proclaimed no such drought existed and cast blame on the state’s water managers and protections for endangered fish.
“We need long-term solutions based on sound science, but instead we’re getting a climate change skeptic who thinks the best way to solve California’s drought is to pump water south from the Delta,” said Thompson, who just won his 10th term in the House.
But the political landscape reshaped by the election appears more aligned with the sentiments expressed by oil industry leader Jack Gerard two days after votes were cast.
“Voters want a Congress and administration that works for their interests,” Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, said in a press release. “With the oil and natural gas industry facing 145 regulations or other policy-setting activities that could discourage production, preventing regulatory overreach should be a top priority.”
A renewed fight over offshore oil drilling is already underway, with implications for the North Coast.
California is losing its most prominent environmental champion with Sen. Barbara Boxer’s retirement after 34 years on Capitol Hill, starting with a decade as the congresswoman representing Marin and southern Sonoma County.
As ranking member and top Democrat on the Senate’s Committee on Environment and Public Works, Boxer forged such a collaborative relationship with the chairman, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, an outspoken climate change denier, that another Oklahoma lawmaker described them as “an old married couple who’ve sort of learned to live with each other’s idiosyncrasies.”
Succeeding her in the Senate will be California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who has sound environmental credentials but as a Senate newcomer will certainly not have a party leadership post like Boxer.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Harris said she would “take California’s leadership to Washington and fight hard to pass national climate change legislation that makes our air cleaner, invests in renewable energy and cuts greenhouse gas emissions.”
GOP to attack laws?
California has an unmatched reputation for environmental action, including its landmark 2006 law establishing the nation’s first limit on greenhouse gas emissions. In September, Gov. Jerry Brown tightened those limits, signing into law a new standard requiring the state to cut emissions at least 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.
But the Nov. 8 election “changed everything,” Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said, installing “an administration that is hostile to our priorities in California” on the environment. “We are about to go from being global leaders to an outsider in our own country,” he said.
On environmental issues, the state’s Republican delegation in Washington diverges sharply with the Democrats who control the Legislature and the governor’s mansion.
Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader and perhaps California’s most powerful representative on Capitol Hill, is a Republican from Bakersfield, the state’s oil capitol. His lifetime score from the left-leaning League of Conservation Voters is 3 percent, based on votes on key environmental bills.
The four California Republicans who sit on either the House Committee on Natural Resources or the Committee on Energy Resources have scores in single digits, while all but one of the 16 Democrats on the committees have scores in the 90s.
Rep. Tom McClintock, a Republican whose district covers the Sierra Nevada from Truckee to Kings Canyon National Park outside Fresno, chairs the Natural Resources subcommittee on federal lands.
In a September speech on the House floor, McClintock railed against federal ownership of nearly half of California, removing that land from tax rolls and limiting economic activity.
Excessive federal landownership throughout the West “has become a stultifying drag on our economies and a direct impediment to taking good care of our public lands,” he said.
David Keller, a Sonoma County Conservation Action board member, said he expects Republicans to attack laws that protect the environment and combat global warming.
“They have been drooling for this opportunity for years,” he said.
A move to weaken the Endangered Species Act, which underlies Russian River salmon restoration and restricts development in a sizable swath of Sonoma County, could be included in a piece of “must-pass” legislation, like an infrastructure repair and jobs bill, Keller said.
“If I were a Republican, that’s what I’d do,” he said.
Shielding the scenic North Coast from oil wells and potential oil spills — a holy grail for environmentalists for 40 years and a goal backed by both Republican and Democratic governors — became a fresh battle last week.
Clash on oil drilling
On Friday, the Obama administration released a new five-year offshore oil leasing plan that limited future development to the Gulf of Mexico, excluding the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic coasts. Rep. Paul Ryan, the House speaker and leader of Republicans in Congress, immediately sided with the oil industry, accusing the outgoing president of “throwing up more barriers to American energy development.”
“Our Better Way agenda outlines a plan to unleash our energy potential and create American jobs,” Ryan said.
Because the leasing plan is not a presidential directive, it cannot be immediately canceled by Trump, who campaigned on a pledge to open all federal onshore and offshore areas to drilling. His administration would set about crafting a new plan to cover lease sales from 2017 to 2022, a process that probably would take a year or two, environmentalists said.
Huffman and a host of Democrats, including Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Boxer, have urged Obama to use his executive authority to permanently withdraw the West Coast from oil and gas leasing.
Richard Charter of Bodega Bay, a veteran anti-drilling advocate, said that step would be a “much tougher hurdle for the fanatics in the Trump administration to overturn.”
“Those promoting the ‘drill-baby-drill’ mentality of the Trump White House are clearly preparing for a war on America’s natural treasures, in callous disregard for the clean-coast economy of the West Coast states,” said Charter, a senior fellow with the Ocean Foundation, an environmental nonprofit.
The Sonoma Coast is protected from energy development by marine sanctuaries that stretch from San Luis Obispo County to Point Arena in Mendocino County. But there are four potential drilling targets farther north in Mendocino, and an oil spill in that area would likely reach Sonoma County, Charter said.
State to remain leader
Trump’s appointments of transition team leaders for the Interior Department and Environmental Protection Agency suggest a sharp departure from the Obama administration.
David Bernhardt, heading the Interior team, served as a solicitor for the agency during the George W. Bush administration and is a lobbyist for the San Joaquin Valley’s Westlands Water District, the nation’s largest irrigation district. Westlands is currently seeking approval of a big irrigation drainage plan by the House Natural Resources Committee.
Myron Ebell, heading the EPA transition team, is a prominent climate change denier.
Trump’s agenda on environmental issues has advocacy groups sharpening their opposition plans and appealing to donors for additional support.
“We’ve got a helluva fight on our hands, but we are up for it,” said Steve Jones, a spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity.
California will remain an environmental policy leader, advocates and local lawmakers said, citing voter approval of a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags and a Monterey County halt on all new oil drilling and separate ban on fracking, the controversial oil-drilling technique.
State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said California’s world-leading efforts to combat global warming will continue, despite the new tenor in the nation’s capital.
“It feels like Donald Trump’s environmental platform has been hijacked from the 1930s,” McGuire said. “He wants to start (burning) coal again. The worst thing you could do for the environment.”
McGuire cited Gov. Brown’s goal of getting 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles — powered by electricity or hydrogen — on the road by 2025. If achieved, it would still amount to just 5 percent of vehicles, and sales remain slow.
Ann Hancock, executive director of the Santa Rosa-based Center for Climate Protection, pointed to Sonoma Clean Power’s program of cash incentives for purchasing or leasing a Nissan Leaf or a BMW 13 as a local initiative. The program has helped put 52 clean-running cars on the road.
Keith Woods, chief executive officer at North Coast Builders Exchange, a 1,100-member construction trade group, said he understands the woe among environmentalists over Trump’s election.
“This is a draconian change” from the Obama administration and what would likely have come had Hillary Clinton won the election, he said. But Trump is an “unknown quantity” as chief executive and it’s unclear what policies will emerge, Woods said.
Asked if the new administration would affect the building industry, Woods said that state and local regulations generally have the greatest impact. But blunting the federal Endangered Species Act would make a difference, he said, because it is the basis for limits on construction in tiger salamander habitat, which covers about 15,000 acres in the Santa Rosa Plain.
The builders group does not advocate for repeal of the law, but has opposed expansion of the salamander habitat zone on the grounds that it would thwart efforts to meet the need for more housing, Woods said.
The builders’ group did not endorse anyone for president, and Woods said he didn’t vote for either candidate, referring to it as a “lesser of two evils” election. The outcome will make a colossal difference for environmental policy, said Thompson, whose Democratic Party remains in the minority in Congress and just lost control of the White House.
“The challenge before us is about to become a whole lot steeper,” he said. “We’re going to have to work much harder to defend the resources even in our own backyard.”