Finally Fighting Emissions California's Battle to Regulate Greenhouse Gases from Cars Goes National

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.

This modified Toyota Prius can be plugged in for extended battery range. © Srmanitou/Flickr

Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA) demonstrated in a series of revelatory 2008 hearings that EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson and virtually all of his staff had favored granting California its waiver, but were overruled by White House political interference. An internal EPA staff document concluded, “[W]e don’t believe there are any good arguments against granting the waiver. All of the arguments are likely to lose in court if we are sued.”

Frank O”Donnell of Clean Air Watch calls the White House interference “an incredibly sordid story.” He predicts that Obama’s reversal of the Bush EPA policy would take a few months “to go through all the legal hoops.” And he called it “one of the biggest and most concrete things the Obama administration can do in its early days. It sends a strong signal, and it has national implications.”

As a U.S. Senator from Illinois, Obama supported a bill to force the EPA to reverse its decision in the waiver case, and during the campaign he pledged to help California in its efforts to regulate greenhouse gas.

There’s a lot at stake. California and the states allied with it represent 40% of the car market, and even liberals such as Michigan’s Governor Jennifer Granholm are concerned about the effects of a greenhouse gas ruling on the beleaguered Detroit companies. As part of a long-delayed revision of federal fuel economy standards, they’re already required to meet fleetwide averages of 36 miles per gallon by 2016.

Although California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is a spokesperson for the Alliance’s website, he hasn’t softened his stance to the carmakers’ hardball tactics. Through a spokesperson, Lisa Page, he said that the governor’s office is “aggressively fighting” to regulate greenhouse gases. In a statement, he told the Alliance that “California will not back down in the fight to protect our own environment by regulating pollution that causes global warming,” adding that “the federal government should adopt California’s model; with 13 other states on board, we are heading in the right direction.”

If, as expected, the Obama administration does issue the necessary “findings’ that California can link tailpipes and climate change, the auto industry has pledged yet another court battle. But it may not materialize, and O”Donnell predicts it would fail. “Their track record in court is zero,” he says. “The industry has lost every suit it’s filed on this issue. It would just be a delaying tactic.”

And it is unclear if the weakened carmakers, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, have either the funds or the fight left in them.