The Fruits of the Clean Cars Peace Treaty

The federal clean car standards to be issued Thursday by President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Transportation are a giant step in our country’s journey towards a cleaner and more secure future. This is an achievement more than 10 years in the making, involving both the states and the national government, and moving from conflict to consensus. 

Credit goes to many leaders in the administration and Congress and in state capitols. And NRDC is very proud of the role we played, together with many other environmental organizations, at both federal and state levels to bring us to this point.   

This journey began more than 10 years ago with a petition for EPA to use its authority under the Clean Air Act to set standards for emissions of carbon dioxide and other global warming pollutants from new vehicles. But the Bush administration refused to act – indeed, the Bush administration denied that carbon dioxide is a pollutant and denied that the Clean Air Act could be used to address global warming at all. So NRDC joined the petitioners and a broad coalition of states to challenge these decisions. And in April 2007, almost three years ago to the day, the Supreme Court held that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are indeed air pollutants and can be curbed under the Clean Air Act. The Court ordered EPA to decide, based solely on the science, whether carbon dioxide and these other pollutants endanger our health and welfare, and if so, to issue emission standards for new vehicles.

Simultaneously, NRDC and partner organizations worked successfully to pass California’s landmark clean car law, sponsored by then-assemblywoman, now-state senator Fran Pavley, in 2002. California has the right under the federal Clean Air Act to set its own vehicle emission standards, and other states have the right to adopt the same standards. For more than four decades, California has pioneered the way to cleaner cars, with the federal government following by setting national standards based on California’s.

In 2004, under the leadership of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the California Air Resources Board set strong standards for vehicle emissions of carbon dioxide and three other heat-trapping pollutants. With environmental organizations’ support, 13 other states and the District of Columbia followed suit. But the Bush administration stood in the way by denying California the normally routine EPA waiver needed under the Clean Air Act.

So once again NRDC joined forces with the states and other groups in the courts, and again we prevailed. Federal courts in California and Vermont rejected auto maker lawsuits to block the state standards. We also challenged EPA’s denial of the California waiver.

When President Obama took office, he moved within his first week to order a reconsideration of the California waiver denial. He also instructed EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and DOT Secretary Ray LaHood to work together on new federal greenhouse gas emissions and fuel economy standards. And after several months of skillful negotiations, the Obama team brought about what I have called the Clean Car Peace Treaty, announced in the Rose Garden last May, bringing together the auto companies, labor, states, and environmental organizations. We agreed on a coordinated set of federal and state standards that will bring the benefits of California’s emission standards to the entire nation, and at the same time will meet the auto industry’s needs for practical uniformity, certainty, and flexibility.

The standards issued today under the Clean Car Peace Treaty are a good deal for consumers, for companies, for the country, and for the planet. They prove that the Clean Air Act works. And they are worth everyone’s support. 

This record of state and federal leadership and cooperation is a model that is good for today, and good for tomorrow. As we celebrate this achievement, we look forward to working with the automakers, labor, the administration, and the states on future standards that will ensure that the United States remains a leader in clean car technologies.

About the Authors

David Doniger

Director, Climate & Clean Air program

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