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California to Adopt Car Emission Reducing Rule
By Miguel Bustillo, Times Staff Writer
California, long a leader in cutting-edge rules to combat air pollution, is poised this week to adopt the world's first regulation to reduce car emissions that contribute to global warming.
The state's latest attempt to be an environmental trailblazer is almost certain to bring a legal challenge from the automobile industry, which accuses the state of using global warming as an excuse to set a new gasoline mileage standard for the entire nation.
It also sets up a confrontation between Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Bush administration over the scope of the state's authority to regulate cars.
California alone cannot reduce global warming. The state emits less than 1 percent of the heat-trapping gases -- chiefly carbon dioxide -- that many scientists believe are raising the planet's temperature. Only about a third of the state's emissions come from cars. California makes up about 11 percent of the national automobile market.
However, state officials expect other states -- and perhaps other countries -- to follow their lead by passing car-exhaust restrictions, combining to make a collective dent in the global warming problem.
Several states, including New York and New Jersey, have indicated they plan to do just that, using a federal law that allows other states to adopt tougher air-quality rules if California does so first. Canadian officials also are studying California's regulation as a prototype for their own rule.
The regulation would require automakers to begin cutting greenhouse-gas emissions in passenger vehicles in the 2009 model year. The requirements would grow steadily tougher over seven years. By 2016, companies would have to reduce the heat-trapping gases from the tailpipes of all their cars and trucks by an average of 29 percent.
The rule could prove to be one of the most expensive environmental regulations ever for consumers. Californians would likely pay roughly $1,000 more for every new car and truck, state officials estimate. Auto industry representatives maintain the cost would more likely be $3,000. The expense would be offset, in part, by lower fuel costs from better gas mileage.
Environmentalists already are hailing the global warming rule as California's greatest contribution to cleaning up the planet since the state forced car companies to install pollution-cutting catalytic converters four decades ago, leading to their adoption across the country and around the world.
Some business groups, meanwhile, are calling it the biggest California boondoggle since the state in 1990 made the same companies invest millions of dollars in electric car technology that never panned out.
"We are rather fatalistic at this point," said Fred Webber, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a group of nine automakers that includes General Motors, DaimlerChrysler and Toyota. Webber said he spoke to Schwarzenegger's environmental protection secretary, Terry Tamminen, and other state officials recently, and concluded that "there is a sense this is going to happen."
"If California goes forward with this rule, we will have no option but to sue," he added.
Schwarzenegger, who promised to support the global warming rule during his election campaign, made it a litmus test recently when appointing five new members to the California Air Resources Board. The board is expected to approve the regulation Thursday or Friday during a meeting in Los Angeles.
The technology needed to cut the heat-trapping gases -- such as variable-speed transmissions that constantly shift to find the most efficient gear -- is already in use in some cars, helping to improve fuel efficiency and overall performance. But it costs more.
For example, a no-frills 2005 Honda Civic coupe has a suggested retail price of $14,360. The same car with a variable-speed transmission costs $14,860. To meet the new California regulation, car companies would likely need to offer several such technological enhancements as standard items.
While the regulation would clearly raise the cost of buying a car, state officials maintain that its requirements would be simpler for the auto industry to meet than many other state environmental regulations.
"We have pushed technology very hard before" with electric cars, said Tom Cackett, the air board's deputy director. "But we are really not pushing the envelope this time. We can point to every technology that is needed to make these reductions on some car out there today. We are not requiring any new inventions."
State officials argue that although consumers will pay more up front, they will save money in the long run because the vehicles will get better gas mileage. Automakers call that questionable, noting that using the state's own calculations, it would take more than a dozen years of driving to recoup the extra cost.
"The auto companies have done everything but say, `We'll see you in court, buddy,' " said Roland Hwang, a car pollution expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the environmental groups supportive of the rule. "They did not engage in negotiations with the air board, which is typically what happens in these cases. They are just complaining, complaining, complaining."
In response to the complaints from auto manufacturers, state officials agreed last month to give car companies extra time to meet the rule's requirements. They also raised their cost estimates from $626 to $1,064 for cars, smaller trucks and SUVs. Nonetheless, industry officials say the state is using global warming as a fig leaf to force car makers to set new fuel economy standards, which only the federal government has the legal authority to do.
The easiest known way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from cars and trucks, industry officials say, is to build vehicles that burn less fossil fuel, because the vast majority of the gases from cars are released during internal combustion.
Some legal experts believe the industry has a strong case that the state rule would amount to a new de facto fuel standard for the entire country. "There's a huge pre-emption question on whether California will be able to regulate greenhouse gases," said Ann Carlson, an expert on state and federal environmental law and associate dean of the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law.
Environmentalists disagree, arguing that car makers have other ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. They include using alternative coolants in more air-conditioning systems and producing more gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles.
"The state is regulating greenhouse gases, not fuel mileage," said Russell Long, executive director of the environmental group Bluewater Network, which helped write the state legislation that resulted in the rule. "We challenge the auto industry, which has been trying to project a greener image, to send its lawyers home and put its engineers to work. When will they support regulations to slow global warming's impact?"
California also faces a major hurdle in obtaining approval from the federal government to enact the global warming regulation.
Because it was regulating air quality long before the federal government passed the Clean Air Act, California is the only state that has the power to pass air pollution regulations that are stronger than those set by the federal government.
However, California must still apply for a waiver from the Clean Air Act to move forward with its own rules. To obtain the waiver, California must show a "compelling and extraordinary" reason that the state needs special rules -- something easily demonstrated on smog but harder on an international problem such as global warming, skeptics note.
The Bush administration to date has chosen not to take action on global warming. President Bush promised to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants during his 2000 election campaign. But he later changed his position, arguing that the regulations would harm the economy.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which must rule on California's waiver, ruled last year that carbon dioxide was not a pollutant, and thus could not be regulated under the Clean Air Act. Several states, including California, are challenging that ruling in federal court.
EPA officials have declined to comment on the state's global warming rule, saying they will wait until they receive the waiver request.