Mad (and Hot) as Hell

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is not going to take it any more.  He and Attorney-General Jerry Brown are suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today, because the federal government is standing in the way of state efforts – led by California – to curb the global warming pollution from new cars and light trucks. 

Sixteen other states – both blue and red – have adopted or are adopting California’s landmark global warming emission standards:  Arizona, Connecticut, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Utah, and Washington.  Together, they make up 45 percent of the nation’s new vehicle sales.  Nearly a dozen of those states are joining in California’s lawsuit. 

Since the 1960s, California has been the nation’s leader in controlling motor vehicle pollution.  The Clean Air Act allows the Golden State to set its own vehicle emission standards, and permits other states to adopt California’s standards.  All California needs is what should be a routine EPA waiver, granted more than 50 times in the past, but this time delayed for 22 months and counting.  Hence the states’ impatience.

Cars, SUVs, minivans, and other light-trucks are the second largest source of global warming pollution (after power plants), responsible for 20% of total U.S. emissions.  Vehicles emit four heat-trapping pollutants – carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide come out the tailpipe, and hydrochlorofluorcarbons (HFCs) leak from the air conditioning system. 

Acting under a landmark law sponsored by Assemblywoman Fran Pavley, California set standards in 2005 that will take effect in model year 2009 and ramp up to a 30% reduction in overall global warming emissions by model year 2016.  If, that is, EPA grants California the waiver.

The Bush administration first took the position that CO2 and other heat-trapping gases were not air pollutants at all – that they were outside the reach of the Clean Air Act.  But in April the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case called Massachusetts v. EPA, set the administration on its ear, holding that that CO2 is an air pollutant and can be curbed under the nation’s clean air laws. 


The car makers sued the states to block the California standards, but after three years of litigation, they’ve come up empty.  A federal judge in Vermont rejected their lawsuit on all counts in September after a 16-day battle-of-the-experts trial (click here for more info).  He found that “Plaintiffs have failed to carry their burden to demonstrate that the regulation is not technologically feasible or economically practicable.”  His conclusion:  “History suggests that the ingenuity of the industry, once put in gear, responds admirably to most technological challenges.”


The only remaining obstacle is the EPA waiver.  By historical standards, California has met all the traditional tests for its waiver.  There’s nothing holding that up now but White House politics. 

If the President’s men are thinking of ordering the EPA administrator Stephen Johnson to stiff California, perhaps they should first read what’s in the government’s Fourth Climate Action Report, submitted to other nations with White House clearance in July.  That report sings the praises of the very California standards that the White House is now thinking of burying. 

States, the report says, are taking “a variety of steps that contribute to the [Bush administration’s] overall GHG intensity reduction goal.”  Among the state actions singled out for commendation?   “Vehicle GHG emission standards” adopted (then) by 11 states:  California, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington (source: Table IV-1 here).  

Last month, President Bush acknowledged:  “Our understanding of climate change has come a long way. A report issued earlier this year by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded both that global temperatures are rising and that this is caused largely by human activities.” He spoke of “a moment when we turn the tide against greenhouse gas emissions instead of allowing the problem to grow.”  He said:  “The moment is now”   

Getting out of California’s way would be a good way to show it.

About the Authors

David Doniger

Director, Climate & Clean Air program

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