Meet California’s new environment czar, who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail to ‘reset’

Mar 7, 2019

What better way to decompress from a stressful federal government job than by trekking 2,600 miles on foot from Mexico to Canada?

That’s what Jared Blumenfeld, the new head of the California Environmental Protection Agency, did three years ago, setting out on the arduous and beloved Pacific Crest Trail that traces California’s searing deserts, rugged mountains and sparkling coastline. Turns out the dust on his boots afforded him just the perspective he needed to take on the job Gov. Gavin Newsom gave him in January.

“I had a healthy reset,” Blumenfeld said recently about his four months on the trail. “What you realize is the complexity of the environmental issues. We have so many people talking about environmental issues, but we say it in a way that most people don’t understand.”

People want to be part of the solution to environmental problems, he said. “What I got from a distance was (the importance of) bringing these messages home in a way that’s digestible and actionable.”

Blumenfeld’s work perspective also shifted, from his job as the regional administrator for the federal EPA during the Obama administration to its mirror agency in Sacramento.

Blumenfeld, who has law degrees from the University of London and UC Berkeley, left his federal job in May 2016, a few months before his appointment was set to expire.

The agency he now manages oversees a half-dozen departments that regulate matters including air and water quality, which are among the state’s most contentious issues. Those issues have put California on a collision course with the Trump administration, which is undoing dozens of federal environmental protections, including some that originated in the Golden State.

Perhaps the most consequential battle is over Obama-era rules tightening future car emissions and gas-mileage standards to reduce greenhouse gases and other pollutants; the regulations were crafted by California but adopted nationwide. The federal government announced it would roll back those rules and revoke California’s right, first granted by Washington decades ago, to set its own air-pollution standards. Such a move would significantly affect the state’s ambitious climate policies.

Blumenfeld, 49, said the state needs the federal government as a partner on these issues, but when it came to hammering out a compromise on the auto standards, it was a one-way conversation. The feds announced last week that they had broken off negotiations with the state.

“They did not negotiate,” he said. “It was a little spurious to say they ended negotiations. They never began. The rule that was passed by the Obama administration has been rewritten based on very spurious and kind of junky science by the Trump administration.” Federal officials produced research that they said showed the regulations as set would make cars less safe and be difficult for automakers to meet.

In a wide-ranging conversation, Blumenfeld also said:

• The state will vigorously defend its right to waive some federal emissions regulations and set its own, stricter standards. He expects the fight to be resolved in court. “We do have law and precedent on our side,” Blumenfeld said. “But we do live in bizarre political times, and that does have an influence on how the highest court may look at this issue.”

• He brought together the state agencies he oversees and provided marching orders to step up enforcement of California’s environmental laws and impose fines when called for. “The regulated community is frustrated that in some cases the enforcement is happening in some parts of the state, but it isn’t in happening in others,” he said. “Consistency, clarity and prioritizing enforcement are important.” He had criticized California for lax enforcement of water laws in an opinion piece published in the San Francisco Chronicle last year.

• Blumenfeld worked for Newsom in San Francisco as environmental director for the city. Then-mayor Newsom took him and other key aides to Hunters Point, a highly polluted former Navy shipyard, and into the community to talk to residents affected by residual problems. Newsom told the aides, “I don’t want you sitting in your offices. I want you to get out and help people.” The nexus of environmental damage and public health will be a focus of the new governor, Blumenfeld said.

The enviro-czar didn’t just spend his time hiking while on hiatus from government service. He founded a green-tech consulting company and started a podcast, Podship Earth. The native of Cambridge, England, who retains a trace of his British accent, said it’s now time to get back to work.

“Previous governors came up with great laws and targets, and the Legislature does the same,” he said. “Our job is to implement those. Let’s not just jump to the next shiny-cool environmental thing that we could do. Our first order of business is to look at what we’re doing and make sure we’re doing it according to the plans that are already there.

“We have politicians in every level of government who care deeply about the environment,” Blumenfeld said. “California offers hope and inspiration on how to solve problems, from an innovation perspective but also politically. It’s exciting to be in California right now.”

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