Browsing through photos of California’s long history, one cannot ignore the images of Los Angeles from the early 1970s — if you could actually see Los Angeles at that time.
Many of the photos we found — most, in fact — revealed a city cloaked in smog, beneath which could be seen ribbons of cars on congested freeways.
California’s urban coastal regions offer a rare combination of moisture, sunshine and too many cars and trucks, whose exhaust emissions blend with the marine layer to produce a “Blade Runner” style haze.
Those old photos and that hazy fact of life in 1970s California helped convince the U.S. Congress to grant California special privileges when it comes to setting standards for improving air quality. That strategy worked in concert with mechanically improved cars and trucks that spewed less smog-inducing emissions.
Along with that special waiver, Congress also gave permission to other states to follow California’s lead, if they chose to do so, which dozens of them have.
The Trump administration last month decided to challenge the emissions waiver, essentially an effort to overturn a ruling by Congress that encouraged California to become the standard-bearer for cleaner air. The U.S. Department of Justice has begun an antitrust investigation of California’s special deal with four major car makers, asserting that only the federal government has such authority.
This all goes back to a continuing feud between President Trump and the governor of California, whoever it happens to be. At the moment, it’s Gavin Newsom, and we believe it is safe to say there is no love lost between Trump and Newsom.
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The dispute reads like a Hollywood script, or perhaps something from Mad Magazine. At the same time the Trump administration is challenging California’s right to clean up its air by way of tough emissions controls, the Enviromental Protection Agency is now telling California its air is the dirtiest in the nation, and unless California officials resolve that problem, the federal government could deny the state nearly $20 billion in highway funds.
The emissions battle stems from the Trump administration’s resolve to roll back Obama-era emissions standards. But one has to wonder how California — or any state, for that matter — is supposed to have cleaner air while the federal government relaxes the rules on machinery that is the principal cause of dirtier air.
More than a dozen states have joined California’s challenge of the Trump administration’s emission rollback efforts in a lawsuit that could end up being decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
There is a lot at stake in this confrontation. First, there are the rights of states to determine the best ways to protect the health and welfare of their citizens. Second, there is the issue of a president essentially countermanding a vote by Congress.
The issue may not get as far as the Supreme Court. Janet McCabe, former acting assistant EPA administrator for air and radiation, said California has the legal power through the Clean Air Act to regulate auto pollutants that include greenhouse gases: "Their job is to reduce emissions. They're not regulating fuel economy, they're regulating emissions.”
We can’t imagine too many Californians wanting to go back to those smog-filled days of the 1970s. Folks who lived through that era remember the coughing, gagging and watery eyes when smog levels were at their highest.
All of which begs the question of whether the United States has become too big and too diverse to be governed by a single entity. And that could, once again, restart the conversation about secession.