If California gets the federal waiver from the Environmental Protection Agency that it needs to implement its emissions law, at least 11 other states are prepared to follow its lead.
"This is more important than any issue that EPA's going to have to face," California Attorney General Jerry Brown told an EPA air quality hearing board.
Brown asked the regulators to relay a message to EPA administrator Stephen Johnson.
"We want him to speak truth to power," said Brown. "There is a tremendous influence of the oil industry. We know (Vice President) Cheney and (President) Bush are oilmen, they think like oil folks. ... We say grant the waiver."
The EPA panel that gathered in suburban Arlington, Va., was led by Margo Oge, director of EPA's office of transportation and air quality. She gave no indication of how the agency might be leaning as a daylong hearing got under way.
At issue is a 2002 California law that requires automakers to cut emissions by 25 percent from cars and light trucks and 18 percent from sport utility vehicles starting with the 2009 model year. The law can't take effect unless California gets a federal waiver.
While air pollution standards typically are set by the federal government, California has a unique status under the federal Clean Air Act that allows the state to enact its own rules as long as it receives permission from the EPA. Other states can then choose to follow either the federal or California standards.
The EPA has declined to say how it will act on the waiver request, and Tuesday's hearing came after more than a year of inaction since the state submitted its petition in 2005.
The session included some two dozen witnesses from environmental groups and other states including Illinois, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Maryland speaking in favor of California's law. A representative from the Manufacturers of Emission Controls Association was in favor of the law, as was the owner of a chain of car dealerships.
Adam Lee, president of a chain of Maine auto dealerships, said automakers have hurt their reputations by opposing other federal requirements in the past, such as smog controls and seat belts, reports the Detroit Free Press. Lee also pointed out that many companies give rebates on larger models such as the GMC Yukon.
"I think the auto industry needs to try a little harder, and I don't think they will try any harder until enough states force them to," Lee said.
A lone voice of opposition came from Steve Douglas of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. He contended that California had not proven that its rules would actually reduce global warming, and that a national approach would be better.
"A patchwork of state-level fuel economy regulations as is now proposed by California is not simply unnecessary, it's patently counterproductive," Douglas said. The state's waiver request "contains many assumptions and undocumented claims" about its benefits in countering global warming, he said.
Automakers also contend that California officials underestimated the costs of its proposal, the Free Press reports.
The auto industry has sued California and Vermont in an attempt to block the regulation, arguing that emissions standards are de-facto fuel economy standards — which can only be set by the federal government.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last month said the state will sue if the EPA does not act on the state's request by October 25.
"We're preparing a lawsuit but we certainly don't want to bring it," Brown told the panel Tuesday.
The auto regulations are a key part of California's overall strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which scientists blame for the Earth's warming temperature over the last three decades. The state is the world's 12th-largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions, 40 percent of which come from transportation sources.
The state last year embarked on a statewide effort to reduce emissions by 25 percent by 2020. A 2006 law relies on the auto regulations to accomplish 17 percent of the overall target.
President Bush last week signed an executive order giving federal agencies until the end of 2008 to continue studying the threat of greenhouse gas emissions and what to do about them. Critics fear the directive could undermine state efforts.
In an opinion piece published in The Washington Post on Monday, Schwarzenegger and Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell said Mr. Bush's directive "sounds like more of the same inaction and denial."