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Red Tape Redux: Auto Companies Threaten Legal Roadblocks to Stall California Emissions Standard

Federal Law Sides Squarely With the State on Groundbreaking Global Warming Pollution Rule

LOS ANGELES (September 23, 2004) -- A renewed legal threat issued by an automobile industry trade group stands little chance of derailing California's landmark global warming emissions standard. In fact, the state remains squarely on the legal high ground according to unambiguous language of the Clean Air Act, the federal fuel economy law, and more than 30 years of judicial precedent.

"California has every legal right to protect its people and its economy from automotive air pollution. On this, the federal law is clearly with the state," said David Doniger, an attorney for NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). "California's leadership role in auto pollution safeguards is expressly recognized under the Clean Air Act. Attacking these pioneering global warming pollution standards is a losing proposition, both legally and politically."

State officials are holding a public hearing on the new rules today in Los Angeles. The threat to sue by the president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers was published in today's Los Angeles Times. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has previously promised to implement the state's pioneering statute and defend it against hostile legal action. Under the Clean Air Act, California has the right to set vehicle emissions standards even if those standards affect fuel consumption. That authority extends to the heat-trapping emissions that cause global warming.

Car companies are also pursuing a risky business strategy by attacking the law. Eighty-one percent of state voters support the measure, according to a non-partisan poll released in July by the Public Policy Institute (PPIC) of California. Backing cuts across party lines (88 percent of Democrats, 71 percent of Republicans) and has the support of 77 percent of SUV owners.

"Attacking a popular pollution safeguard is an affront to consumers, who are demanding cleaner technology in their cars, trucks and SUVs. Americans know we have the technology to meet this challenge, and they expect automakers to deliver," said NRDC Vehicles Policy Director Roland Hwang.

The new standards proposed by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) were ordered by the legislature in July 2002, and are based on extensive cost and feasibility studies. Starting with the 2009 model year, the agency gives car companies until 2016 to achieve a 30 percent reduction in heat-trapping emissions from new cars, pickups, minivans and SUVs sold in the state.


Fuel Economy Fallacy

Under the federal fuel economy law (the Energy Policy and Conservation Act) both California and the EPA retain the clear and unambiguous right to set standards for vehicle air pollution regardless of whether they have an impact on fuel economy performance. And when federal air pollution and fuel economy rules collide, federal law gives priority to the former: pollution safeguards trump fuel economy.

  • From its beginning, the federal fuel economy law specifically provided for adjustments in efficiency standards in the event that California or federal pollution rules make mileage standards more difficult to meet -- not the other way around.


  • Today, the agency responsible for fuel economy standards, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, is required by law to take emissions rules and other standards into account before setting fuel economy performance targets.


  • In the early days, air pollution standards tended to increase fuel consumption. Today that conflict is largely gone. The technology to meet today's air pollution standards tends to improve fuel economy at the same time. This is true of the technologies to reduce vehicles' global warming pollution.


  • If the fuel economy law does not stand in the way of EPA or California air pollution standards when they make better fuel economy harder to achieve, it certainly doesn't stand in the way when air pollution standards make better fuel economy easier to achieve.


Opposition Claims Don't Stand Up

The Clean Air Act gives California authority to set air pollution standards for motor vehicles. Global warming emissions clearly meet both the legal and commonsense definition of "pollutant":

  • The Clean Air Act says an "air pollutant" is any "physical, chemical, biological, [or] radioactive substance or matter which is emitted into or otherwise enters the ambient air" -- terms that obviously include heat-trapping emissions covered by the California law: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide emitted from vehicle tailpipes and hydrofluorocarbons leaking from their air conditioners.


  • The Clean Air Act authorizes EPA to regulate any motor vehicle air pollutant determined by the agency to "cause, or contribute to, air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare." "Welfare" is defined specifically to include "effects on weather and climate."


  • The potential dangers of global warming emissions were specifically recognized in congressional Clean Air Act debates as far back as 1965. Global climate change was also singled out as a concern under the act during legislative debate over the 1970 and 1977 amendments.


California Consumers Support Emissions Law

California alone makes up about 12 percent of the 50-state vehicle market. The state is second only to Texas in state carbon dioxide emissions, forty percent of which its 23 million cars and trucks. Surveys show that voters are very much aware of the problem, and want action to fix it.

In addition to the July PPIC survey, an April 2004 poll by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research found state voters favor new standards over voluntary industry agreements to cut global warming emissions by a margin of 58 to 39 percent. In May, 87 percent of California adults surveyed by Field Research said it is important for the state to play a leading role enforcing laws to cut automotive global warming emissions.

While California is the only state allowed by law to set its own vehicle emission standards, other states can chose California standards as a stricter alternative to federal rules. States that have adopted, or are in the process of adopting, current California rules include Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont.


Clean and Cost Effective

The new proposal requires a 22 percent emissions cut by the 2012 model year, and 30 percent by the 2016 model year. CARB estimates the first target will add $277 to the cost of a typical passenger car, and $367 for a large pickup or SUV. Phase two would cost an average $1064 and $1029, respectively.

By comparison, the average sticker price of new passenger vehicles in the U.S. this year tops $28,000, according to CNW Market Research. Cost-effective technologies are already available that would reduce carbon dioxide pollution from cars and light trucks of all sizes. Emissions can be cut significantly with advanced technologies including variable valve timing, displacement-on-demand, turbocharging; continuously variable transmissions; slicker aerodynamics; and low rolling resistance tires.

On a pound for pound basis, methane, nitrous oxide and hydrofluorocarbons refrigerants are more potent warming pollutants than carbon dioxide. Methane is 21 times more powerful, nitrous oxide is 310 times more powerful, and the refrigerant HFC-134a is 1,300 times more powerful. Fortunately, solutions also exist to reduce or even eliminate them from vehicles, including new catalysts; reduced refrigerant leakage from air conditioners; or safer alternatives that replace HFC-134a altogether.


Time to Beat the Global Warming Challenge

Scientists report that Earth is warming faster today than at any time in history, and faster than any natural factors can explain. They say pollution is the reason. Since 1990, we've seen the ten hottest years on record, and 19 of the hottest 20 since 1980. That means more heat waves, more air pollution alert days, and costly flooding due to rising seas. California experts also predict more prolonged drought and water shortages, and greater risk of fire.

California leaders in both political parties have demonstrated the courage and foresight to demand cleaner vehicle technologies that reduce emissions without compromising performance. They should be applauded. Strong public support for these actions means opponents challenge the new standards at their own peril.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, nonprofit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 1 million members and e-activists nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

 

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