California is the Catalyst for National Clean Cars Deal, not the Hurdle

There is an inference apparently among some in the auto industry that somehow California is a “hurdle” to a national clean car deal for model years 2017 to 2025 (see this article in Detroit News). Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, anybody who suggests such would be a clear case of the pot calling the kettle black.

Let’s review the facts that demonstrate California is a catalyst, not a hurdle, and has a clear track record of being a solid partner to the federal process, not a spoiler.

  • First, the California Air Resource Board has committed in writing to be a good partner. According to a statement by Chair Mary Nichols dated May 21, 2010, California will “work in partnership with EPA and NHSTA to develop a staff technical assessment to inform future rulemaking” that critically includes “Identify potential greenhouse gas emission standards that could be practically implemented nationally for the 2017-2025 model years...”  (At this time, CARB’s website is down so I cannot provide a link, but will as soon as it’s available).
  • Second, history has repeatedly proven California to be right, and the auto industry to be off base in their predictions of doom and gloom.  Phase 1 (sometimes called “Pavley 1”) of the California Clean Cars program resulted in a stronger national standards, not chaos and a so-called patchwork of standards problem the auto industry was claiming. In a previous blog, I detailed the good faith steps California made to expeditiously implement what is in practice a uniform, harmonized national program for clean cars. California adopted changes to its program to allow averaging across all the 14 states with the California program, for the auto industry to use CAFE test data for compliance, and finally, once EPA and NHSTA almost completed their rule, to provide the automakers the flexibility to demonstrate compliance with the national program on a 50-state basis in lieu of demonstrating compliance on a 14-state basis.  There is no reason to believe, if the automakers cooperate, we can’t repeat this outcome in round 2.
  • Third, to add an even longer historical perspective, California has a four decade long, proud and successful history of pioneering new vehicle and fuels emission standards that are eventually adopted nationally and even internationally. This includes the three-way catalytic converter in the 1970s and unleaded and cleaner burning gasoline in the early 1990s. In the late 1990’s, California’s Low Emission Vehicle pollution standards (so-called LEV II) became the model for what EPA eventually adopted (the so-called Tier 2). Thanks to California pioneering efforts and its willingness to stand up to the auto industry, literally hundreds of millions people across the world are now breathing cleaner air and benefiting from California’s courage in leading the way. And let’s not forget that the auto industry fought tooth and nail against the California Clean Car standards for seven long years, before they finally admitted last year it could meet the standards.

Today’s announcement confirms that reasonable stakeholders have acknowledged that California’s pioneering role and track record as solid partner to federal processes has earned it a clear role as an equal partner in helping define the next round of national clean cars standards:

  • President Obama’s Memorandum specifically directs the Administrators of the EPA and the NHSTA to “Work with the state of California to develop by September 1, 2010, a technical assessment to inform the rulemaking process…”
  • Even Detroit’s most ardent champion recognizes California has an important seat at the table. According the Detroit News:  "It is critically important that all stakeholders have a place at the table -- the United Auto Workers, the automakers, the federal agencies and the states," Dingell said. (Of course, given what’s at stake for our energy security and climate, we believe that environmentalists should also be at the table.)

The burden really is on the auto industry – the same industry that fought air bags, catalytic converters, and sued California to stop its clean car program—to demonstrate it won’t be the hurdle. Will the auto industry come to the table with a clear, realistic assessment of what they can do to cut carbon pollution from cars, or will they continue their past behavior of just saying no to substantially improving their cars? If history is any indicator, it’s California that will be the catalyst, and the automakers the hurdle. Stay tuned.