California is once again throwing its weight around as an environmental trendsetter. In a move that could reinforce that role, the state recently made headlines by targeting global warning with the world's first regulations on tailpipe greenhouse gases.
But serious legal and other challenges are certain, according to most analysts. That leaves open the question of whether California's action will sputter rather than rev up a transformation in the US car market.
White House officials, and federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency may take issue with certain premises of the rules - whether carbon dioxide should be labeled a pollutant, for instance, or whether the state overstepped its bounds by regulating fuel efficiency. Court and legislative challenges could lie ahead, fueled by a backlash from Detroit automakers.
One reason the battle could drag on: Not only is California a huge market in its own right, but seven other US states typically follow its lead on air-quality rules. So do several other countries, including Canada. By voting Sept. 24 to issue regulations requiring model-year 2009 cars and light trucks to begin reducing such gases as carbon dioxide by 30 percent before 2016, California's Air Resources Board set the stage for others to follow.
The move is popular in California, but the prospect of higher car prices raises the specter of possible consumer backlashes in some quarters, such as America's 25 million SUV owners. If broader resistance coalesces, the result could be renegotiated or watered-down rules.
An eight-lane-wide menu of stalling tactics is promised by automakers, who say they'll keep all options open in vociferous resistance to the new rules. Detroit manufacturers have a long history of resisting government-mandated innovations from catalytic converters to low- and zero-emission cars since the early 1960s.
"California's cars and trucks still create 40 percent of this state's [greenhouse gases] and are clearly linked to global warming," says Assemblywoman Fran Pavley (D) of Woodland Hills, who authored the bill that led to the rules. "The automobile industry and oil companies declared full-scale war, just as they had fought seat belts, air bags, catalytic converters, and unleaded gas."
Just as in those prior episodes, the propaganda war is already underway. In coming months, say analysts, combatants will meet in and out of court over jurisdictional;.economic, and scientific suppositions at the heart of the ruling.
"We are examining all options," says Eron Shosteck of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. Presented with evidence that 81 percent of state residents in a recent California Public Policy Institute say they are in favor of the new controls, he says the public has been misled into thinking that limiting carbon dioxide has any health or environmental benefits.
"Ninety-eight percent of C02 is naturally occurring in the atmosphere and has nothing to do with smog," says Shosteck. "This is not about cleaner air but about fuel efficiency - and state's can't pass laws regarding that, only the Feds can."
While his alliance has no immediate plans for action, officials have said in the past that they will challenge the fuel- efficiency rules. "We are expecting a blizzard of lawsuits," says Roland Hwang, vehicle policy director for the National Resources Defense Council. "Since the automakers have virtually unlimited resources and can challenge in state and federal courts, they will throw in the kitchen sink."
The EPA last month that it will not regulate carbon dioxide from cars, SUVs and other vehicles because it does not consider carbon dioxide a pollutant. That could bring legal action by California contending that it is, or to ask the EPA to grant the state a waiver. Some consumer groups have already been fighting the regulations with ads. They include the SUV Owners of America (SUVOA), with 23,000 members, that presents figures showing the ruling could add $3,000 to the price of each car.
"We are against government mandates on vehicles that wind up having an effect on affordability," says Ron Defore, SUVOA spokesman. Not to mention other influences, such as size. "Fuel-efficiency standards in the early '70s forced the manufacture of smaller cars, which in turn has led to far higher death and injury rates."
CARB officials and other environmental groups say the added price will be closer to $1,000 per car, but will be made up in the first year with cost-saving measures.
Behind the quickly drawn battle lines: California, and its residents who buy 10 million new cars a year, and seven other states, who have legally subscribed to follow suit.
A Clean Air Act amendment in 1965 allowed states to subscribe to either the already-high California standard or the federal model. Canada has also indicated it will adopt the rules.