The coronavirus crisis in California has major industries — from agriculture to construction to oil — pushing to bend environmental regulations to make it easier to keep doing business.
But Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office says that’s not happening, and the message is clear:
“It's not a moment for people to take advantage and try to throw out rules they didn't like anyway,” said Kate Gordon, director of the governor’s office of planning and research and Newsom’s senior advisor on climate.
This response comes as several industry groups sent letters to state leadership, including Newsom’s office, in late March. They want old regulations — and even some scheduled to be voted on soon — to be halted as the COVID-19 pandemic escalates.
During an interview with CapRadio, Gordon said there would be some grace for industries dealing with the pandemic.
“We've got folks out there who are just going to have a really hard time meeting deadlines,” she acknowledged. “There are instances where there's a rational desire to just extend some deadlines to try to figure that stuff out.
“But in terms of this being a moment we use to kind of backtrack all of our regulations. That's not happening.”
A variety of industries are lobbying state leaders as the crisis develops and hobbles or shuts down vast sectors of the economy.
A letter from the Construction Industry Air Quality Coalition says existing rules will be hard to meet while “staff are confined to their homes and unable to perform inspections, inventories and the extensive reporting demanded by CARB [the California Air Resources Control Board].”
But even with the COVID-19 crisis unfolding, the group says CARB’s regulations and deadlines will remain in effect. CARB did not respond to a request to discuss the coalition’s letter.
Others — like Western Growers, an agricultural trade association representing farmers in Arizona, California, Colorado and New Mexico — have asked the governor for a formal pause on all open public comment periods that impact agriculture.
Even though agriculture is deemed an essential activity, the group feels farming interests can’t be adequately represented in the regulatory process while social distancing rules are in place: It’s hard to give feedback or input on a proposal when you can’t show up at a public meeting.
Dave Puglia, the group’s president, wrote in a letter to the governor that creating new regulations will only “add to the intense burden farmers are facing.” He’s referring to labor, distribution and health issues.
Some members of the trucking industry want the state air board to delay or significantly modify a proposal to accelerate the electrification of big rigs.
By 2030, under CARB’s proposal, 50% of all medium-to-heavy truck sales would need to be zero-emission vehicles, and 15% of all other truck sales, as well.
In a letter to the governor, Jed Mandel with the Truck and Engine Manufacturers Association wrote that “this is not a business as usual situation, and it should not be a regulation as usual situation either.”
He says it was already going to be a challenge to meet the new rules. “They simply are no longer sustainable or implementable on top of the economic strains caused by the on-going COVID-19 crisis and the apparent recession that we now face,” Mandel wrote.
But environmental and health advocates say these concerns come from companies and trade associations that never liked the standards in the first place.
“They're using this crisis as an excuse to try to weaken or delay those safeguards,” said Bill Magavern, policy director with the Coalition for Clean Air.
He added that the companies have not successfully lobbied California to reduce safeguards so far. “They certainly have succeeded at the federal level where the U.S. EPA is basically giving a lot of the polluters exemptions,” Magavern said.
He says it’s important for California to continue to stand apart from the nation, especially when it comes to reducing pollution from semi-trucks.
“Transportation is by far the biggest cause of air pollution in California,” Magavern said. “In order to prevent the climate crisis from getting even worse, we do need to take action to reduce those emissions that are coming out of the tailpipes of trucks, as well as of other vehicles like our cars, ships and trains.”
California may take the Trump Administration to court after the federal government rolled back Obama-era emission reduction rules on Tuesday.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that this timing is more than tone deaf,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said during a press briefing in response to the Trump administration’s latest move. “It’s difficult to believe that we’ve now got to divert some of our state attention to trying to tackle an unlawful attempt to change our clean car standards.”
Keeping environmental rules in place during the age of COVID-19 is important for the long term health of Californians, says William Barrett, clean air advocacy director for the American Lung Association in California.
“We know that, as we come out of the COVID-19 crisis, we're going to see a ramp-up of pollution that may have dropped off in the meantime,” Barrett said. “Those communities that are most impacted are going to feel that right away.”
Wth so much unknown about COVID-19 and how it could impact California’s future, he says it’s imperative to continue decreasing pollution, because vulnerable populations will feel the brunt of a compromised environment and the coronavirus.
“We have the No. 1 cities for ozone and particle pollution in the United States,” Barrett said. “California's clean air programs are working to clean the air, protect public health, save lives, and they help avoid sending people unnecessarily to the emergency room and hospitals, especially now when it's so critical to do that.”
That’s why Barrett says ensuring the state’s air quality remains good is pivotal, especially during the pandemic.
Over the past two weeks, major California cities have seen around a 30 percent reduction in nitrogen oxide levels — a pollutant produced by burning fossil fuels — according to Ronald Cohen, director of the Berkeley Atmospheric Science Center.
His results are based on satellite imagery, vehicle counts from Caltrans and data collected by his lab.
“I'm starting to be convinced that the data is unambiguous and that it's just been cleaner for two weeks,” Cohen said. “We have Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area and Seattle, and they're all telling a consistent story.
“The thing about this moment is it's teaching us a lot about how to think about prevention,” he added.