Is EPA Playing Dirty With Clean Air Law?

Rainbow flag waving
The old axiom goes, "Lead, follow, or get out of the way."

Critics are saying the Environmental Protection Agency has added another option: "Trip up."

Several states are now talking about suing the EPA because of its rejection of a strict auto emissions law set to be enacted by California and 16 other states, rules which would have required cleaner cars beginning two years from now.

Under the Clean Air Act, California is allowed to have stricter clean air laws than the federal government. Other states are also allowed to adopt California's stricter regulations than the federal rules.

With 10% of all car purchases in the U.S. made in California, the state represents a sizable market for U.S. and foreign car companies. And with other states signing on, the new emissions law would have covered approximately 45% of the U.S. auto market.

The law would cut pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and fuel consumption.

And California wasn't going it alone: 16 states were ready to adopt California's standards, including Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont and Washington.

However, the EPA had to agree to the new law by issuing a waiver. And the EPA said "no."

EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson announced Wednesday that, without waiting for a finalized written statement by the agency's technical and legal staff, he had declined California's request.

Referring to the energy bill which Congress recently passed and which the president signed into law, Johnson said, "The Bush Administration is moving forward with a clear national solution - not a confusing patchwork of state rules - to reduce America's climate footprint from vehicles."

It was the first time California had ever been denied a waiver when asking to enact clean air rules that were cleaner than federal rules.

Johnson said that, unlike other waivers issued in the past for pollutants impacting local and regional air quality, California's current request for emissions whose effects are "fundamentally global in nature" was rejected because it did not "meet compelling and extraordinary conditions."

The Los Angeles Times now reports that Johnson overruled his own staff's findings in denying California's waiver, after agency staff had argued unanimously that the Golden State had met all of its requirements.

California Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols was one source cited by the paper as saying EPA staff informed her that they had been overruled by Johnson.

The Los Angeles Times also suggested that correspondence from auto manufacturers, and pressure possibly linked to meetings held last month between executives from Ford and General Motors and Vice President Dick Cheney which were first reported by the Detroit News, may have influenced Johnson.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vowed to fight back. "I am extremely disappointed by EPA's decision to block the will of millions of people in California and 16 other states who want us to take tough action against global warming," he said in a statement.

"EPA's denial of our waiver request to enact the nation's cleanest standards for vehicle emissions is legally indefensible and another example of the failure to treat climate change with the seriousness it demands."

Schwarzenegger announced that the state will sue EPA to overturn the ruling as quickly as possible. "I have no doubt that we will prevail because the law, science and the public's demand for leadership are on our side.

"Anything less than aggressive action is inexcusable," he said.

Automobile manufacturers sued to prevent the California law from taking effect, arguing that they could not alter production to meet the demand in time. The Bush administration joined their case, claiming the EPA should not regulate carbon dioxide - a major greenhouse gas - because it believed CO2 is not a pollutant.

In April the Supreme Court rebuked the Bush administration, saying that the Clean Air Act does give the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to regulate the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from cars.

In September, a federal district court judge rejected the automakers suit brought before a Vermont court. And earlier this month, another federal judge tossed the automakers' suit in California. "Given the level of impairment of human health and welfare that current climate science indicates may occur if human-generated greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated, it would be the very definition of folly if EPA were precluded" from regulating greenhouse gases, Judge Anthony Ishii wrote.

It seemed that California and the other states were on the verge of moving forward. But shortly after President Bush signed the new energy bill, Johnson announced there would be no waiver.

The Energy bill, which President Bush originally threatened to veto, raised car fuel efficiency standards for the first time in 32 years, and marked a defeat for automakers who had vigorously opposed raising fuel economy in the past.

California's regulations would have required a 30-percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions in new cars and light trucks by 2016, with the first cutbacks starting in 2009.

The new federal regulations would result in somewhat smaller reductions of greenhouse gases - 10-23% by 2030 - and would require automakers to achieve an industry-wide standard of 35 miles per gallon four years later than the California law, in 2020.

California's law would also apply to all vehicles - unlike federal rules which separates cars and trucks under different categories.

Johnson said that the new federal fuel efficiency ratings (known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards) mean that states need not adopt competing standards.

"There is much greater environmental benefit of 50 states abiding by this new law [than] one or two or twelve or seventeen," he said.

But other states adopting California's law means there would be only two standards, no matter how many states opt in. And those states are opting to join with California in fighting the EPA.