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Unprecedented Obstructionism: EPA Blocks Progress on Global Warming

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California filed suit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today to force a decision on the state’s longstanding request for authorization from the federal government that would allow the state to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles under the Clean Air Act. California’s ability to set more rigid automobile emissions standards than the EPA was first established in the Federal Air Quality Act of 1967, to respond to the acute air pollution problems confronted by the State. In order to take action, however, the EPA must first approve California’s request by issuing a “waiver.” 

California originally requested the waiver in December 2005, and the state has been waiting an unprecedented two years for an EPA ruling. During this time, 14 additional states have adopted California’s greenhouse gas limits for cars and light trucks and joined California in waiting for the EPA to grant the waiver. These 15 states combined represent approximately 40 percent of the new vehicle market in the United States.

The lengthy delay in ruling on California’s pending waiver request is clearly exceptional. The EPA claimed at first that it lacked the jurisdiction to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, arguing that greenhouse gases did not qualify as air pollutants. The Supreme Court removed this excuse on April 2, 2007, when it ruled in Massachusetts vs. EPA that the EPA does indeed have the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks.

Despite a clear decision from the nation’s highest court, the EPA continues to stall.

The administration’s obstructionism goes beyond mere procrastination. The EPA has approved 50 full waivers and 40 waiver amendments since 1968. There have only been five occasions on which the EPA has denied a request, and the last time was in 1975.

What’s more, leaked emails provided to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform recently revealed that the U.S. Department of Transportation placed improper and potentially illegal phone calls to state and federal lawmakers urging them to submit comments to the EPA opposing California’s waiver request. Committee Chair Henry Waxman (D-CA) has pledged to further investigate the matter.

This one action alone by the EPA would make enormous progress in reducing vehicular greenhouse gas pollution in California and nationwide. Beginning in model-year 2009 and ending in 2016, the California program would reduce average fleet-wide tailpipe greenhouse gas emissions to 30 percent below the 2002 average for passenger vehicles, light duty trucks, and SUVs.

This ambitious target is achievable by auto manufacturers. Auto companies have already developed the vehicle technologies needed to meet even more stringent efficiency and emissions standards in Australia, Japan, the EU, and even China. Moreover, automakers have shown in the past they can comply—and thrive—when faced with mandates to increase fuel efficiency or reduce emissions. California’s previous waivers have actually permitted the state to serve as a proving ground for new pollution control equipment, including the first two-way catalytic converters; unleaded gasoline; and cleaner-burning, low-sulfur diesel fuel—features we now consider customary throughout the country.

The stakes are high. For California, addressing vehicle greenhouse gas emissions is vital to achieving the state-level reduction targets codified in A.B. 32, the “Global Warming Solutions Act,” which mandates a return to 2000 levels by 2010, 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. Transportation alone accounts for over 40 percent of total California greenhouse gas emissions, and nearly 60 percent of its carbon dioxide emissions. The California Air Resources board estimates that the cumulative efforts of the states would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 100 million metric tons per year below business as usual by 2020—the equivalent of taking roughly 18.5 million cars off the road.

Oil prices are approaching $100 per barrel. The effects of global warming are increasingly felt across the United States, including the elongated droughts in the West and Southwest, which have contributed to the severity and frequency of wildfires in the region. Now is the time for EPA to support the leadership of California and the 14 other states by granting the waiver, and put our country on course to combat climate change and produce the new generation of cleaner-burning vehicles.

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