Center for American Progress

California Scheming: EPA Denies California’s Clean Car Request
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California Scheming: EPA Denies California’s Clean Car Request

The decision not to allow California to set its own emission standards under the Clean Air Act deserves a closer look.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen L. Johnson yesterday denied California’s petition to limit greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks, in turn denying 17 other states the right to set their own carbon dioxide emissions standards. Johnson said the energy bill signed into law by the president earlier that day was a “better approach” on fuel efficiency than “a confusing patchwork of state rules,” and that the Bush administration was “moving forward with a clear national solution.”

Mr. Johnson’s statement is both false and disingenuous since he should know that the Clean Air Act explicity allows states to adopt the entire California clean car program, or remain with the federal program. There would be only two standards–California’s and the federal controls–and not a patchwork of different rules as Mr. Johnson states.

Johnson is also right that global warming demands a national solution—and in fact also requires an international solution. But the Bush administration has opposed both. Federal resistance to greenhouse gas reductions spurred California and other states to adopt their own emissions reductions programs for vehicles and other pollution sources. These state initiatives should be lauded rather than blocked by the administration.

The emissions standards California passed in 2002 would have forced automakers to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent in new cars and light trucks by 2016, with the cutbacks to begin in 2009 models. Emission reductions from vehicles can be achieved by improving fuel economy, switching to cleaner-burning fuels, and reducing emissions from air conditioners. In contrast, the new federal law requires automakers to meet a 35-mile-per-gallon fleet-wide standard for cars and trucks sold in the United States by 2020, and does not address carbon dioxide emissions.

California is allowed under the Clean Air Act to set its own air pollution policies as long as it obtains an exemption, or waiver, from the federal government. 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 v. EPA that the EPA does indeed have the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks. 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.

Former EPA administrator William K. Reilly, who served under President George H.W. Bush, approved nine California waivers. He expressed surprise at the decision. "What possible grounds would there possibly be to deny California this waiver? There’s every reason to defer to California in making these decisions."

California originally requested the waiver in December 2005, and the state had to wait an unprecedented two years for an EPA ruling. EPA denied the waiver only eight hours after President Bush signed the new fuel economy standards into law. Most big auto manufacturers reluctantly but eventually supported the new fuel economy standards. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senator Dianne Feinstein thwarted their efforts to block California’s standards as part of the energy bill. So the auto industry had also lobbied the White House and EPA to block the California rules, and the Detroit News reported that chief executives of Ford and Chrysler met with Vice President Cheney last month to discuss the issue.

Environmentalists and state officials including California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger are outraged about Johnson’s decision and have pledged to sue to overturn it. In the past three months, federal judges in Vermont and California have ruled twice against automakers’ attempts to block state tailpipe reductions for greenhouse gases.

Even EPA’s policy analysts and lawyers seemed to think that it made more sense to grant the waiver. In a presentation prepared for the administrator, aides wrote that if Johnson denied the waiver and California sued, the EPA is likely to lose in court. The technical and legal staffs cautioned Johnson against blocking California’s tailpipe standards, and recommended that he either grant the waiver or authorize it for a three-year period before reassessing it. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-CA), chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee today vowed to investigate Johnson’s ruling.

The EPA’s decision to deny California its right to reduce global warming pollution is another blow to U.S. reductions. The federal government will waste valuable time and precious dollars on a legal fight that they will ultimately lose. Meanwhile, impacts from global warming become more apparent every day. Since the Bush administration refuses to act to slow global warming, it must at least get out of the way of states that understand the urgency of action.

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