The bill sitting on California Gov. Gray Davis's desk has been called the beginning of "a new era." In a country that has done little in response to the rising tide of studies about global warming, the Golden State is poised to take a first bold step.
The law would regulate automobiles' emissions of greenhouse gases, which are thought to contribute to rising temperatures around the globe. No other state has gone so far, and with the US showing no inclination to join the Kyoto agreement to curb global warming, California is prepared to stake out new ground far removed from Washington.
The questions it raises are many, ranging from the cost to car buyers to the real environmental effect. Yet California's gambit follows a pattern that has become common in recent decades, as the state calls on industries to become cleaner, with the rest of the country eventually following suit.
Now, many say the effort could resonate nationwide, should Governor Davis sign on, which appeared more likely Thursday. "It could be a tremendous influence," says Therese Langer of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) in Washington. "Once California shows that it can do it, it would be hard to show that you couldn't do this nationwide."
Whether California can be successful with such a plan, however, is the subject of intense debate. Industry spokespeople insist that there are only two ways to lower greenhouse-gas emissions: The first is forcing drivers to drive less, the second is to force them into smaller cars.
Neither seemed a palatable solution to state lawmakers, and the bill stalled until it was amended so that no fees can be levied, no speed limits changed, and no cars outlawed to achieve the lower emissions goals.
But critics, insisting that the goal is impossible without such measures, speculate that the state will find ways around those laws. Moreover, they note that no one has yet defined how much greenhouse-gas emissions particularly carbon dioxide will have to be reduced.
"This is bad policy," says Bill George, a spokesman for the coalition lobbying against the bill. "This has got to result in some sort of disadvantage for the driver. It's so extremely vague."
The push for cleaner cars could result in more expensive cars, according to one analysis by ACEEE. Simply by using existing technology, such as more-advanced transmissions and different materials, ACEEE estimates that the average fuel-efficiency of the American fleet could be nearly doubled from its current level of 24 miles per gallon with no drop in cars' size or performance.
That upgrade would cost buyers an extra $1,000 to $1,500 per car. But Ms. Langer says this would be a relatively small amount when taken in the context of rising car prices and quickly recouped in savings at the pump.
In addition, under the current plan, the California Air Resources Board would have four more years to refine its rules, and they would not be enforced until 2009 model vehicles. That would give automakers time to devise improved technologies a major goal of the bill, say supporters.
"What this will do is drive innovation throughout the industry," says Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, an environmental research and consulting firm in Snowmass, Colo.
While most acknowledge that the change would not have a significant impact on global warming by itself, it would put California in a familiar position: that of leader. In 1966, it was the first state to demand emissions standards for automobiles. In the 1970s and '80s, its rules for appliance efficiency were copied by several other states prompting the industry to go to Congress and ask for a federal standard, so manufacturers wouldn't have to make three different refrigerators for three different states.
The new bill could be a continuation of that trend and could again change the way Detroit does business. After all, some 10 percent of all US auto sales are in California.
For example, when in 1990 California demanded that 10 percent of all new vehicles sold here by 2003 meet low-emissions standards, the research helped yield today's growing fleet of hybrid vehicles, which run on gas and electricity.
Lawmakers hope for more of the same with this bill, which has passed both houses of the Legislature. If signed, many say, it would be a statement that when it comes to the issue of global warming, California stands more with those supporting the Kyoto pact than with Washington.
"It changes the dynamic at the federal level," says John White, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club in Sacramento, Calif. "It's a signal that California is joining with Europe and Japan to try and help shape environmental regulations for automobiles around the world."