In his eight years in office, George W. Bush was an exemplary ally of the Detroit auto companies—if encouraging them to produce gas-guzzling SUVs and trucks can be considered the act of a friend. One of the many acts committed by the Bush administration to keep auto state politicians happy was its refusal to let California (and the states that follow its emissions standards) regulate greenhouse gases from automotive tailpipes. President Obama set to work reversing this Bush-era policy shortly after his inauguration, when he signed an executive order directing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reconsider that refusal. Mary Nichols, chair of the Air Resources Board in California, says the EPA could approve the waiver by April.
A little history is in order. Because of its smog problems, California is the only state empowered to create its own emission laws, and states have the option of either following its tough standards (as 18 have) or sticking with the weaker federal laws. Thanks to the hard work of State Representative Fran Pavley, in 2002 California passed AB 1493, a law regulating carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from cars and trucks. Since automotive greenhouse gas is directly related to fuel economy, the law effectively told carmakers to stop building gas-guzzlers—they’d have to cut climate emissions 22% by 2012 and 30% by 2016.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM), the industry’s lobbying arm, promptly sued California and two of the states allied with it, Rhode Island and Vermont. AAM claimed that only the federal government has the right to set fuel economy rules.
This battle has had other fronts. In 1999, a coalition of 19 environmental groups, including the International Center for Technological Assessment, Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, petitioned the EPA, claiming that under the Clean Air Act it was required to regulate CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Again, carmakers sided with the Bush administration.
Courts stayed the industry’s lawsuit against California, and in 2005 the state petitioned the EPA for a routine waiver to begin regulating greenhouses gases from tailpipes by the 2009 model year—but again the federal agency stalled, finally denying the request in 2007. That same year, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the environmentalists in the 1999 case—stating unequivocally that CO2 is a pollutant. The Bush administration simply ignored the Supreme Court ruling and made no move to regulate greenhouse gases.