Smile and Waive

Today the Environmental Protection Agency takes another step towards finally giving California the green light to enforce its landmark standards to cut global warming pollution from new motor vehicles. The Bush administration had blocked California last year by denying the state a normally-routine waiver under the Clean Air Act.

President Barack Obama, acting quickly on his first Monday in office, directed his new EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson, to take a fresh look at the waiver. Today EPA is holding a public hearing required by law to give all sides - California and other states, environmentalists, automakers, and car dealers - a chance to have their say.

I'll present NRDC's testimony today along with testimony by our vehicles policy guru, Roland Hwang. Our message will be simple and direct: California has met every requirement of the Clean Air Act. EPA needs to grant California its waiver without further delay.

Since 1967, the Clean Air Act has allowed California to set its own standards for vehicle air pollution. California has to apply to EPA for a waiver, but over four decades and under presidents of both parties this has never been a barrier before. More than 50 waivers were granted over the past 40 years and this was the first one refused. Other states can then choose between federal emission standards or California's.

California's legislature passed a law in 2002, sponsored by then-Assemblywoman (now-Senator) Fran Pavley, requiring the Air Resources Board to set standards for greenhouse gas emissions from new cars, SUVs, minivans, and pick-ups. In 2004, under Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the ARB set standards for a combination of four pollutants - carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs, the coolant in air conditioners).

Since then, 13 other states (Arizona, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington) and the District of Columbia have chosen the California standards. Other states, including Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Minnesota, and Utah, are in the process of joining them.

In 2005 the governor asked EPA Administrator Steven Johnson and his boss, President George W. Bush for the Clean Air Act waiver. That's where the trouble began.

To begin, automakers and dealers brought a series of lawsuits against California and other states, arguing that California can't regulate global warming pollution under the Clean Air Act and is preempted by a second federal law that calls for CAFE standards. They've lost every case so far. The Supreme Court ruled that greenhouse gases are "air pollutants" subject to EPA regulation under the Clean Air Act, and that the federal CAFE law doesn't stand in the way. Three district courts reached the same conclusion regarding California's standards.

But the automakers didn't stop there. They went to the Bush White House. And sure enough, going against the unanimous recommendations of his lawyers, scientists, and engineers, EPA Administrator Johnson turned thumbs down on the waiver.

Now, at President Obama's direction, Administrator Jackson is taking a fresh look, and we have every hope she will turn her thumbs up, because:

  • California has demonstrated its standards are more protective than the federal ones - not hard since there are no federal standards for global warming pollutants.
  • California has demonstrated it needs these standards to meet "compelling and extraordinary conditions."

    California has a greater variety of severe global warming impacts than any other state - including increased smog levels, reduced water storage in the Sierra snowpack, sea level rise, salt water intrusion, agricultural damage, increasing wildfires - you name it, California's got everything except melting permafrost.

    Motor vehicles account for 40 percent of the state's heat-trapping emissions. Reducing those emissions (and vehicle pollution in other participating states) will help mitigate California global warming impacts.
  • California has demonstrated car makers can meet its standards using technology already on the road in some cars - it only needs to be used in more cars.

    The job can be done even without hybrids (though hybrids will help, of course.) And consumers will save money because their cars will use less fuel.

    Some car makers' own product plans show they can meet California's standards on a nationwide basis - see Roland Hwang's testimony and his blog for more on that.

More and more, car makers and dealers understand that their market has fundamentally changed. Global warming isn't going away. And when the economy recovers and people start buying cars again, the automakers know oil prices are going back up. In its latest request for federal taxpayer assistance, GM projects a return to $130 per barrel oil by 2014.

If taxpayers are going to put more money into these companies, we need to be sure they'll be making products that make sense when the customers come back. To survive in the world that's coming, they need to be making the cleaner, more efficient vehicles California's standards will drive.

What will the auto makers and car dealers say today? My guess is that they see the handwriting on the wall. They'll not use all their chips making losing arguments against the need to cut California's global warming pollution, or the feasibility of the state's standards. Rather, they'll lament state-by-state action and call for national uniformity.

As I've written in recent posts (here, here, and here), there are practical ways to get the highest possible emissions standards we need nationwide and also achieve the practical uniformity the auto industry wants.

But it all starts with granting the California waiver.