Once again, California is trying to change the world. This time its target is the ever-present automobile, and Monday state officials will announce emissions regulations of unprecedented scope and significance.
Never before has a country - let alone a state - required that car manufacturers reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted from tailpipes in an effort to combat global warming. Within the next decade, however, California will demand that new cars sold in the state cut those pollutants by 30 percent.
On one hand, it is a measure of California's clout: 12 percent of all cars sold in the United States roll off lots here. Yet it also marks a reprise of California's role as Washington West - the primary counterweight to the policies of the Bush administration. As a result, the decision could stir states dissatisfied with Washington's leadership, despite the fact that the program could eventually add $1,000 to new car prices.
"In a number of states, a lot of misgivings have been expressed about the failure of the federal government to do anything about greenhouse gases," says Therese Langer of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy in Washington. "That will make this very appealing."
In recent years, seven Northeastern states - including New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts - have adopted California's auto-emission regulations, which are tougher than the federal standard. California's new plans, however, represent something unique. It has never before regulated gases such as carbon dioxide, which many scientists believe contribute to global warming.
While some European countries have voluntary guidelines for reducing tailpipe greenhouse-gas emissions, California would be the first in the world to create a mandatory standard, introducing it in 2009 and gradually strengthening it until 2015. Since California is home to some of the most car-clogged cities in the US, the change would have an obvious environmental effect.
Yet even environmentalists say the greater significance is political. As it has done many times before, California has crafted a new policy for other states and countries to follow. In 1960, for example, California established the world's first agency to control air pollution; several years later it became the first state to regulate pollutants such as carbon monoxide.
Already, New York has said it would follow California's new greenhouse-gas regulations, and Canada has made similar intimations. The California Air Resources Board is expected to lay out the details of the plan Monday. Two years ago, the legislature passed a bill - signed by former Gov. Gray Davis - that gave the agency the authority to regulate greenhouse gases. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger says he will support the decision.
"If it weren't for California, the environment would be much worse in this country," says Roland Hwang of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It puts pressure on the auto industry and Washington to come up with a solution."
For its part, the auto industry wants nothing to do with the new California policy, and it has said it might sue. At issue is California's authority. The federal Clean Air Act clearly gives California the right to set its own emissions policy in order to curb pollution. Many times in the past, California has used this authority to pass stricter regulations than those that existed in other states.
But critics of the new plan suggest that one of California's fundamental goals is to improve fuel-efficiency, and Washington still retains total authority over national fuel-efficiency standards. Experts suggest that there are other ways to lower greenhouse-gas pollutants besides improving fuel efficiency, such as cutting the carbon content of gasoline. Yet improved fuel economy is "the great untapped resource," says Ms. Langer.
A study by her organization found that fuel economy could be doubled using existing technology - such as lighter materials and more sophisticated transmissions - with no change in a car's appearance and no loss of performance. The cost: between $1,000 and $1,500 per car - roughly in line with California's estimates. Moreover, if California's plan can survive, the state hopes its mandate will spur further innovation. It has happened before: In the 1970s, California pioneered the use of the catalytic converter, which is now standard equipment on all automobiles.
"[Auto manufacturers] don't want to make two different cars," says Mr. Hwang. But if California's new regulations spread as previous ones have, he says, "the California car may become the de facto national car."