California may yet get the first greenhouse gas limits for cars

One of Barack Obama’s first environmental pronouncements as President was a January 26 directive to revisit a contentious decision handed down last year by the Environmental Protection Agency. The president asked his new EPA chief to review the Bush administration’s refusal to let California set tough tailpipe-emissions standards for new cars and trucks. The proposed standards would have been unique: the first motor-vehicle limits aimed at cutting atmospheric releases of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide.

This morning, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson announced that this new review has commenced. “It is imperative that we get this decision right, and base it on the best available science and a thorough understanding of the law,” she said. Details of what the review will entail are due to be published soon in the Federal Register.

California is notorious for having some of the worst air pollution in the nation and is a leader in greenhouse-gas emissions. Acknowledging its situation, the feds wrote a provision into the Clear Air Act that allows the Golden State — and only California — to set stiffer air pollution standards than EPA has enacted. But only if EPA first signs a waiver authorizing such a proposed deviation from existing federal standards.

So, when California lawmakers became concerned about their state’s carbon footprint, they decided to attack it and smog-belching traffic at the same time — by drafting rules to limit emissions of greenhouse gases. They expected EPA’s okay, because after all, better-mileage vehicles emit fewer pollutants of all kinds. And vehicles are a major threat to climate stability. Cars and trucks account for 40 percent of California’s emissions of CO2. (Nationwide, the figure is closer to 33 percent.)

California’s legislators passed their greenhouse-gas-emissions law in July 2002. It led to rules for carrying out the law two years later. Never implemented, those rules would have required cutting greenhouse-gas emissions by 30 percent. Carmakers would have had until 2016 to achieve the standard.

Automakers were less than thrilled at bumping up the timetable for rolling out cleaner cars. So as EPA officials contemplated whether to grant California a waiver, the automakers began lobbying against those rules. And they sued California.

Years passed and no sign of the anticipated waiver emerged.

Until last year. On March 6, EPA’s administrator announced his agency would not grant the waiver. One justification offered: Existing mileage improvements required under the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 would achieve the same aim California had sought — and avoid the development of a “patchwork” of different emissions rules around the nation.

California — joined by 15 other states, including New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania — sued EPA asking for it to overturn its denial of the waiver. And California’s Air Resources Board set about challenging the idea that the proposed greenhouse-emissions rules were equivalent to the national fuel-efficiency standards.

Under the Energy Act, new cars and trucks must get steadily better mileage over the next decade. By 2020, a manufacturer’s fleet-wide average — accounting for all cars and trucks that it sells — much be at least 35 miles per gallon. California’s Air Resources Board countered last month that if the state’s proposed greenhouse-gas rules could be implemented, they would amount to a fleet-wide 43 mile-per-gallon average by 2020. According to Platt’s Oilgram News, the CARB analysis also determined that the proposed California rules would “reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by 16.4 million metric tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent” by 2016 — or twice as much as federal changes under the Energy Act are expected to achieve.

Meanwhile, curious about how EPA arrived at its waiver denial, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform conducted an investigation. Last May it issued its findings. They claimed that the denial of the California waiver was due to politics alone. Indeed, it highlighted statements in one brief by an EPA attorney that said: “After review of the docket and precedent, we 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.”

In probing factors that led to EPA decision, the House committee staff pored over more than 27,000 pages of documents surrendered by the agency and deposed or interviewed eight key officials. The committee’s finding:

1) “the career staff at EPA unanimously supported granting California’s petition [for the waiver]
2) Stephen Johnson, the Administrator of EPA, also supported granting California’s petition at least in part; and
3) Administrator Johnson reversed his position after communications with officials in the White House.”

Indeed, EPA’s Jackson said this morning, “The denial [of the waiver] was a substantial departure from EPA’s longstanding interpretation of the Clean Air Act’s waiver provisions.”

“Reconsidering the waiver denial is a clear indication that the new administration is ready to lead on energy and global warming,” contends Kevin Knobloch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group that focuses on energy and climate issues. Moreover, he contends, through this decision, it appears that “President Obama is beginning to make good on his campaign pledge to restore science to its rightful place in federal policymaking.”

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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