One Nation, Under CO2

by Matthew Madia, 12/20/2007

EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson yesterday rejected California's request to set its own vehicle emissions standard for greenhouse gases. (Click here for background.) An article in today's Washington Post summarizes the decision well:

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen L. Johnson yesterday denied California's petition to limit greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks, overruling the unanimous recommendation of the agency's legal and technical staffs.

The decision set in motion a legal battle that EPA's lawyers expect to lose and demonstrated the Bush administration's determination to oppose any mandatory measures specifically targeted at curbing global warming pollution. A total of 18 states, representing 45 percent of the nation's auto market, have either adopted or pledged to implement California's proposed tailpipe emissions rules, which seek to cut vehicles' greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent between 2009 and 2016.

Under the Clean Air Act, EPA has the final authority to regulate air pollutants. But the law's authors recognized two things: California has special needs due to its severe pollution problem, and states are often innovators in environmental policy. Subsequently, the Clean Air Act allows EPA to grant California waivers to set its own programs and for other states to follow suit. California, "had never been denied a waiver in the law's 37-year history," according to the Post.

On regulating greenhouse gas emissions, Johnson and his auto industry friends have sounded a similar refrain. Celeste Monforton at the Pump Handle blog noticed an Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM) statement in support of the recently passed bill revising the federal fuel economy standard repeatedly used terms like "50-state" and "nationwide" to praise the standard.

Johnson defended his decision to reject the California petition saying, "The Bush Administration is moving forward with a clear national solution — not a confusing patchwork of state rules." In response, an AAM spokesman said, "We commend E.P.A. for protecting a national, 50-state program," instead of a "patchwork quilt."

As Frank O'Donnell at the Blog for Clean Air points out, the claim that a national standard is preferable to "a patchwork of state rules" is misleading:

This is baloney, of course. Johnson is implying (as the car companies have in their misleading rhetoric) that there are lots of different state standards. This is false. There is only the California standard, which other states by law can adopt.

In the 1970s, industry finally started supporting federal environmental regulations when they realized the alternative would be compliance with a variety of different state standards. Regulation at the federal level would be more manageable and allow industry groups to focus their lobbying efforts.

However, we have not yet reached a similar tipping point on greenhouse gas emission regulation.

The passage of the fuel economy reform bill and the denial of California's petition are not attempts to set strong federal standards, but attempts to nip state actions in the bud. Since innovative state policy is a proven driver of federal regulation, Bush and his anti-regulatory cronies can slow any form of government intervention by stripping the states of their ability to regulate.

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