After years of fighting the Bush administration, California and 13 other states finally won federal permission today to set tough new tailpipe standards that for the first time limit greenhouse gas emissions from cars, trucks and SUVs.
For the next two years, those states will lead the charge, pressuring automakers to build cleaner, more fuel efficient vehicles.
Then, starting in 2012, the rest of the country begins to play catch up.
President Obama and the nation's automakers announced a deal last month to raise the national fuel efficiency standard starting in 2012, increasing the average from 25 mpg now to 35.5 mpg by 2016.
By meeting that fuel efficiency standard, automakers will be lowering their greenhouse gas emissions enough to comply with the second part of the president's plan: an EPA rule that will limit tailpipe emissions to 250 grams per mile by 2016. Since that's close to the standards in the California plan, the 14 states will then defer to the national rules.
In the meantime, a federal waiver approved today by the EPA allows the California plan to move forward, setting tailpipe standards for a group of states that represents about 37 percent of the nation's vehicles.
Considering that vehicle emissions make up about a quarter of the United States' global warming emissions, it's an important step toward protecting the climate, as California's Air Resources Board noted when it approved the Legislature-ordered rules in 2005 (see attachment):
"The past century has already seen changes in climate-related conditions in California, such as average temperature (up 0.7 degrees Fahrenheit), sea level (up 3 to 8 inches), spring run-off (decreased by 12 percent), and the timing of snowmelt and spring bloom (advanced by 1 to 3 weeks)," the board wrote.
Vehicle manufacturers fought the California plan in court, but only succeeded in stopping it by appealing to Bush administration EPA chief Stephen Johnson. But when Johnson rejected the state's waiver request in 2008, he strayed from the EPA's historic standards for evaluating Clean Air Act waiver requests, current EPA officials say. Johnson looked at greenhouse gases to determine whether California had a specific need for its own rule, separate from federal regulations, and decided that greenhouse gases were a global problem instead of local.
Obama EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson used the EPA's more historic interpretation: Did California have local conditions leading to serious air pollution problems, officials said. She decided yes, the state did, and approved the waiver.
"This decision puts the law and science first," Jackson said today.
"This waiver is consistent with the Clean Air Act as it's been used for the last 40 years. ... More importantly, this decision reinforces the historic agreement on nationwide emissions standards developed by a broad coalition of industry, government and environmental stakeholders earlier this year."
In California, manufacturers now have 45 days to demonstrate that their current year models meet or exceed the tailpipe standards. Most are already capable of complying with the 2009 rules, California Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols wrote to Jackson earlier this year.
Under the California rules, 2009 model year cars and light trucks are limited to 323 carbon dioxide-equivalent grams of greenhouse gases per mile. That drops to 301 for 2010 model year vehicles, 267 for 2011, and 233 for 2012.
By 2012, California expects to see a 22 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from its passenger vehicle compared to 2002 levels. The cost to consumers (estimated in 2005 when the state approved the rules): about $370 more per vehicle by 2012.
California has a history of leading the way on environmental issues, and its actions are often followed by the federal government.
The president's new federal auto emissions standards, expected to be formally proposed by the EPA later this year, will begin in 2012 and increase each year so that by 2016, cars average 39 mpg and pickups and SUVs average 30 mpg. They are expected to cut tailpipe emissions by 30 percent, eliminate the need for 1.8 billion barrels of oil, and prevent the production of 900 million metric tons of greenhouse gases for the life of vehicles produced through 2016 – the equivalent of taking 177 million cars off the road or shutting down 194 coal plants.
"President Obama and Administrator Jackson see the Big Picture when it comes to getting America running on clean energy," Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope said in praising the waiver decision.
"California has once again shown itself to be a laboratory for national environmental and energy policy ... It has blazed a trail in the policy arena, while also growing its economy over the last several decades – even as it has implemented the nation's most protective environmental standards."
Under the Clean Air Act, only California is allowed to set its own stricter emissions standards, though other states are allowed to adopt the California plan. The other states following California's lead this time are Arizona, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.
Here's a look at what some of the governors had to say.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger:
"After being asleep at the wheel for over two decades, the federal government has finally stepped up and granted California its nation-leading tailpipe emissions waiver. ... California's long battle to reduce pollution from passenger vehicles is over, and a greener, cleaner future has finally arrived."
New York Gov. David Paterson:
"The decision is living proof that there is new leadership in Washington, leadership that recognizes the key role that states can play when it comes to developing environmental policy and leadership that understands the partnership needed to successfully tackle the climate change crisis."
Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire:
"We've known for years that new standards were needed. ... With these new rules in effect, by 2020 we'll eliminate pollution in an amount equivalent to removing 1 million cars off our roads and highways in Washington state alone."
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick:
"Coming quickly on the heels of the historic vote on energy and climate legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives, this news accelerates our progress toward a clean energy future."