California to Regulate Tailpipe Greenhouse Gas

Last Updated Jul 1, 2009 11:18 AM EDT

If there was any doubt that tomorrow's cars will be a lot cleaner and greener than today's, it was erased yesterday when the Environmental Protection Agency granted California the right (from this year to 2016) to enforce tough greenhouse gas standards for tailpipes. The move had been widely expected, but the reality of it was still somewhat sobering for all concerned. Regulating car-related climate change is basically the same as regulating fuel economy, since there's no other way to control emissions.

Hummers like the one here may, as a result of this ruling, become part of our gas-guzzling past, and customers are showing they prefer more fuel-efficient crossovers, anyway. Cars might also become more expensive across the board (though not everyone wants to admit that).

Carmakers buckled their seatbelts last month (when the Obama Administration unveiled a huge new plan for fuel economy and greenhouse regulation, requiring cars to meet a 35.5 mpg standard by 2016). They reacted mildly to the California EPA announcement, which may not have that much practical effect. California will abide by the federal program, which starts in 2012, and there aren't likely to be many state enforcement issues before that--because the first years of the program are very lenient.

Still, environmentalists said yesterday that California's regulatory power would act as a brake on the efforts of auto lobbyists to weaken the federal program's provisions. If it's reduced to a shell (as some think happened to the Waxman-Markey climate bill) California and the states that follow its lead can opt out of the federal program and apply their own tougher standards. And automakers definitely don't want that to happen.

Here's Dave McCurdy, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (representing 11 companies, including the Big Three): "We are hopeful the granting of this waiver will not undermine the enormous efforts put forth to create the national program." There's a lot between the lines there: Carmakers want a single national standard like the federal program, and they are very much hoping that California's notably activist regulators will, in fact, defer to Washington.

Tom Cackette, a deputy director of the California Air Resources Board, noted that the state will accept the federal program provided it is "consistent" with the agreement signed last month. "The years 2012 to 2015 in the federal program are subject to rulemaking," he said, "and we encourage the federal regulators to follow our lead with a strong program."

Flickr/Gonzalo Barrientos