President Donald Trump’s administration is once again battling California, this time over a new state law aimed at limiting the sale or transfer of federal lands to private corporations.
On Monday, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit to challenge California SB 50. Enacted in October, the law grants California primary rights to purchase or arrange the purchase of federal lands within the state. It also gives the state’s Land Commission first right of refusal before federal public lands in California can be sold or leased.
DOJ filed its lawsuit the same day the Environmental Protection Agency announced plans to reverse a landmark Obama-era rule that tightens fuel standards for vehicles. The decision hands a victory to automakers, while weakening the only major federal policy intended to reduce planet-warming emissions from the nation’s top source of greenhouse gas pollution.
The decision also puts the EPA at odds with California regulators, who had previously agreed to align their tailpipe emissions standards with the national levels, thus ensuring consistent mileage and emissions rules nationwide.
In a statement, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said the state is prepared to take the White House to court over the EPA’s decision.
“We’re not looking to pick a fight with the Trump Administration but when they threaten our values, we’re ready,” he said.
SB 50, which lawmakers introduced as a preemptive measure against possible environmental encroachments by the Trump administration, is one of several steps the state has taken over the past year to protect those values.
The bill is part of a legislative initiative in California’s state Senate known as “Preserve California.” The initiative is meant to offset “rollbacks in federal environmental regulations and public health protections,” according to a release from state Sen. Ben Allen (D), who first introduced SB 50.
“With unprecedented attacks coming from the Trump Administration there has never been a more important time to defend our open spaces,” Sarah Rose, CEO of the California League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement after the bill’s passage through the state Senate in September. “The passage of SB 50 sends a clear message: public lands belong in public hands.”
However, the DOJ called the law “unconstitutional” in a release on Monday.
“The Constitution empowers the federal government — not state legislatures — to decide when and how federal lands are sold,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement. “California was admitted to the Union upon the express condition that it would never interfere with the disposal of federal land. And yet, once again, the California legislature has enacted an extreme state law attempting to frustrate federal policy.”
H.D. Palmer, deputy director for external affairs at California’s Department of Finance, said in a statement that the administration of Gov. Jerry Brown (D) is “evaluating the lawsuit and considering next steps,” but that its “commitment to protecting access to public lands for the use and enjoyment by all Californians is unchanged and unwavering.”
Muddying the issue somewhat is the fact that Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have repeatedly said they oppose selling off federal lands. In fact, it was over this very issue that Zinke — a former Montana congressman and Navy SEAL — resigned as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 2016. In a speech one day after arriving at his new post in Washington, D.C., Zinke promised Interior staffers: “You can hear it from my lips. We will not sell or transfer public land.”
Unsurprisingly, some see Monday’s lawsuit as the latest sign that the administration will ultimately cave to the Republican Party platform, which calls for transferring control of federal lands to states.
“Today the Trump Administration showed its true colors by aggressively working to ensure that it can sell off, sell out or dispose of public lands that belong to all Americans,” Kate Kelly, the public lands director at the Center for American Progress, said in an emailed statement.
In February, the Trump administration released its anticipated infrastructure plan, which proposes selling off several federal assets, including Reagan National and Dulles International airports in Virginia.
Monday’s lawsuit, filed in federal court in Sacramento, comes roughly one month after the Justice Department sued California over its so-called “sanctuary” laws meant to protect undocumented immigrants.
Brown warned at the time that the Trump administration was “basically going to war” against California.
The state also filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration last week over the Commerce Department’s announcement that the 2020 Census would ask people whether they are U.S. citizens.
Chris D’Angelo contributed reporting.