Los Angeles traffic on the 105 freeway near the 405 interchange in Southern Calif. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

NEW YORK – The Trump administration is ratcheting up its threats against California with a letter warning the state faces sanctions – including cuts in federal highway funding – over its “failure” to submit complete reports on its implementation of the Clean Air Act.

In the letter to the California Air Resources Board, Andrew Wheeler, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, wrote that the state had the “worst air quality in the United States” and had “failed to carry out its most basic tasks” under the federal law.

That law requires states to submit implementation plans to the EPA outlining their efforts to cut emissions of six types of pollutants. When President Donald Trump entered office, the administration faced a backlog of over 700 reports, and roughly 140 of those that remain are from California, Wheeler said in an interview.

“When I learned about this a couple months ago, the question I asked the staffer was, ‘why are we holding on to these – why haven’t we acted?’” Wheeler told McClatchy. “And the response I got back was, ‘we didn’t want to deny them and they couldn’t approve them.’ Well that’s ridiculous to allow 34 million people to live in areas not in compliance with our air standards.”

The administration will give California until October 10 to rescind their “incomplete” plans and resubmit new reports addressing 82 municipalities facing noncompliance.

Its failure to do so will result in “disapproval,” another EPA official said, triggering “sanctions clocks” under the law that would penalize the state with cuts to highway funding – and allow the federal government to impose an implementation plan of its own.

That could amount to a substantial penalty for a state that receives more highway funds than any other state in the country. According to the Department of Transportation California is projected to receive more than $19 billion from the Federal Highway Administration between fiscal years 2016 and 2020.

Wheeler’s warning to California is the Trump administration’s latest front in a protracted battle with the state over climate change and, in particular, the state’s unique authority to set its own standards for carbon dioxide emissions – a potent greenhouse gas. The EPA moved last week to rescind the federal waiver allowing California to do so, granted by the Clean Air Act of 1970, prompting a lawsuit from California joined within hours by 22 other states.

The administration is moving separately to write new auto emissions standards that would apply to the entire country, rolling back stricter requirements that were set by the Obama administration in agreement with California in 2012.

California leaders, however, have attempted to go around the administration, negotiating their own agreement with automakers to voluntarily lower emissions on new cars built through 2026. Thus far, four leading manufacturers have joined the agreement: Ford, Honda, BMW and Volkswagen.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom blasted Trump during remarks at a climate conference in New York on Monday, accusing the Republican president of infringing on states’ rights by undermining California’s ability to set its own standards. Newsom also criticized Trump for threatening car companies that negotiate with California.

“I don’t know what the hell happened to this country that we have the president that we do today, on this issue,” Newsom said Monday morning. “It’s a damn shame, it really is. I’m not a little embarrassed about it, I’m absolutely humiliated by what’s going on.”

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