Four months after making headlines with its new program to fight global warming by reducing carbon-dioxide emissions from vehicles, California finds its new plan is stalled – as do 11 other states waiting to do the same.
As the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) holds a public hearing about the plan Wednesday in Sacramento, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and other governors are accusing the federal government of blocking their efforts to institute tougher standards for tailpipe emissions than US regulations require.
They say the Bush administration is dragging its feet on granting California a waiver – formal permission to deviate from federal standards – from the Clean Air Act, the sweeping 37-year-old federal law that regulates air emissions. California has requested 40 waivers since 1977 and received permission for the vast majority.
Until California gets the waiver, no other state that has adopted the same standards may move ahead either. The rules would force automakers to cut exhaust from cars and light trucks by 25 percent and from sport-utility vehicles by 18 percent, beginning with 2009 models. Collectively, the standards would cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 392 million metric tons by 2020 – the equivalent of taking 74 million cars off the road for one year, experts say.
California has been asking the EPA for authority to limit tailpipe emissions since 2004, but the agency had claimed it did not have authority to regulate global warming. That changed last month, when a US Supreme Court ruling found that the agency does in fact have that authority under the Clean Air Act. The decision was widely seen as putting pressure on the White House and federal government to address global warming.
The White House and the EPA say they are moving as quickly as the law allows.
"EPA [has] acted in a timely manner after the Supreme Court handed down its decision on greenhouse gases," says Kristen Hellmer, spokeswoman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, which works with agencies and executive offices on environmental policy.
Part of the EPA's process includes hearings at which interested parties – the auto industry, environmental groups, citizens – lay out their arguments for or against granting a waiver. The hearing in Sacramento follows one in Washington on May 23. No others are scheduled.
"Federal regulations say we need to make sure that implementing California's tailpipe emission standards would not be arbitrary and capricious," says EPA spokesman John Millett. The EPA could take from two months to two years to make its decision, he says. The EPA can deny the waiver only if the agency finds 1) that California does not need its standards "to meet compelling and extraordinary conditions" or 2) that the standards are inconsistent with other measures of the Clean Air Act.
Governor Schwarzenegger, state Attorney General Edmund "Jerry" Brown Jr., and other state attorneys general want the EPA to pick up its pace. Led by California, they vow to take legal action by October if the EPA has not acted. Their hope is that a US court would force the agency to make a decision, if it were to find the EPA timetable to be unreasonable.
The EPA's Mr. Millett says such suits are common, and he notes that the agency is equally vulnerable to lawsuits if it does not meet its mandate for holding proper and fair hearings.
The waiver process raises complicated questions of states' rights and federal prerogatives amid a political backdrop that has twisted the usual Republican-Democrat dynamic, say some observers.
"Traditionally, Democrats are stronger federalists at the expense of states, and conservatives and Republicans espouse stronger states' rights," says James Winebrake, chairman of the public policy department at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. "In this case, the White House is dragging its feet and you have to ask why.... That is what the governors of these states are pressing for answers about."
Federal justifications for denying a waiver, say Winebrake and others, are twofold. One is concern that state-by-state emissions standards could force automakers to make different models, increasing costs and creating production problems. The other is concern that a waiver might break legal precedents that define the jurisdictional line between Congress and the states over power to regulate commerce.
In the hearing Wednesday, environmental groups such as Environmental Defense and the Natural Resources Defense Council, as well as California's state EPA, are expected to testify that cars create about 40 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions in the state and need to be reduced 30 percent by 2013.
"If we do nothing, temperatures could rise up to 10-1/2 degrees by the end of the century, impacting water supplies, harming our world-class agriculture industry, and increasing heat-related deaths," according to written testimony from Linda Adams, California's secretary for environmental protection, which she is expected to repeat at the hearing.
Auto representatives and other industry groups will also testify. "We will tell them there needs to be a multisector, national approach to addressing greenhouse-gas emissions, rather than a patchwork quilt of state regulations," says Charlie Territo of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. Congress or federal agencies should act instead, he says.
President Bush, in fact, two weeks ago gave federal agencies until the end of 2008 to finish studying the greenhouse-gas threat and to decide what can be done. Moreover, many bills are percolating in Congress to address the issue.
For the moment, says Mr. Territo, his group will dispute the claim that new state rules would measurably help the environment. "To achieve this waiver there are some criteria that need to be met," says Territo. "One ... is that there needs to be extraordinary and compelling evidence that failure to adopt the regulations would have a devastating impact on the state. We will produce scientists who say no such evidence exists."