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State Attorneys General Are Fighting To Keep Environmental Laws

Robert Bukaty
AP File
Frey when he was elected to be Maine's attorney general, Wednesday, Dec., 5, 2018, at the State House in Augusta.

The Trump Administration has been active with efforts to roll back some parts of federal clean air laws, which govern everything from coal-fired electric plants to motor vehicle emissions. In many cases, the efforts have been made through rule making. Some state attorneys general, including Maine’s, have joined together in trying to block those changes.

Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey says that since his election, the president has been trying to reverse years of efforts to address climate change.

“The Trump Administration wants emissions from vehicles to be worse,” he says. “They want, you know, coal plants to put out more toxin.”

Frey says that’s why Maine will join an effort to preserve provisions of the Clean Car Rule, which allows several states, including Maine and California, to set their vehicle emissions standards above the national level.

The state is also party to a lawsuit brought by 23 states and seven municipalities that seeks to block a rule change that would allow coal-fired power plants to roll back pollution limits. Frey says he is frustrated at having to fight to keep pollution standards at a time when states are scrambling to curb the pollutants that contribute to climate change.

“We can try to put a stop to this roll back, hopefully making sure that the kind of experience, the kind of air quality that Mainers expect will be able to be maintained,” he says. “And, again, the dialogue should be how can we improve air quality, not how can we improve the amount of toxins that can go in the air.”

Frey says he expects states to bring more legal actions challenging the Trump Administration’s efforts to weaken environmental laws.

This is not the first time that states have come together to challenge changes in federal environmental law.

“Forty years ago I joined with the attorneys general of the New England states to sue the Reagan Administration on the issue of acid rain, and we had some success,” says former-Maine Attorney General James Tierney.

Tierney teaches at Harvard Law School and operates a blog for state attorneys general. He says multi-state lawsuits are a common tool for keeping the federal government in check.

“There’s a reason why we have state government in this country, and it’s because when the federal government doesn’t act or acts illegally, states have the legal authority to do something about it,” he says. “State attorneys general around the country are standing up for science and standing up for climate change in many, many different forms.”

Tierney says by joining together, states can share the considerable legal costs of these suits, which he expects will only grow in number in the coming months.

This story is part of a week-long reporting project Covering Climate Now by Maine Public and more than 300 other news outlets around the world. The series comes in advance of the United Nations Climate Action Summit on Monday Sept. 23 in New York. More information here.

Originally published 3:49 p.m. Sept. 20, 2019

Journalist Mal Leary spearheads Maine Public's news coverage of politics and government and is based at the State House.