In a move that could change the way cars are designed nationwide, Gov. Gray Davis on Monday signed into law legislation that makes California the first state to combat global warming by requiring reduced tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases.
The Democratic governor’s widely expected decision to sign the bill by Assemblywoman Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) is a triumph for environmentalists, who suffered a bitter defeat in Washington earlier this year when they attempted to increase gas mileage standards.
With passage of the measure in California, the nation’s largest car market, environmentalists hope not only to reduce gas-forming emissions, but also to force changes that will improve fuel efficiency of automobiles sold across the country.
“We are going to set an example for the rest of the country,” Davis told a cheering crowd at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, saying that he was leading the way because Washington politicians had failed to act. “I am convinced that other states will follow.”
The law augments the authority of the agency responsible for regulating air pollution, the California Air Resources Board. But it provides the board with only a hazy outline of how to reach its goal of achieving the “maximum feasible reduction” of greenhouse gases.
It requires that new cars sold here seven years from now emit less of the gases that trap heat in the atmosphere. It falls to the Air Resources Board to figure out the technology.
The board must come up with its recommendations by 2005, amid what is certain to be sustained scrutiny and legal squabbling by auto makers. The emissions standard it sets will then apply to all cars and trucks from the 2009 model year onward.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group that comprises all the major car makers except Honda, announced that it would sue to challenge the new law, arguing that it exceeded the state’s jurisdiction.
Because the best known way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in automobiles is to make ones that burn less fuel, auto makers argued from the start that the California measure was a backdoor attempt to go around the federal government and, in effect, set a new national fuel-efficiency standard. In commenting on the bill, Davis himself said, “I would prefer to have Washington take the lead, but in the absence of that we have no choice but to do our part.... It is my hope that other states will do the same thing.”
California is the only state allowed, under federal law, to set air pollution standards higher than those imposed by the federal government. Other states can then follow California’s lead, giving the state the ability to set national standards.
The state air board has a lengthy record of pushing auto makers to pursue changes against their will. California regulations were the first to require vehicle makers to use catalytic converters, seat belts, clean diesel fuel, unleaded fuel, alternative fuels, reformulated gasoline and electric and hybrid cars--often despite industry denials that the changes could be accomplished or would be accepted by consumers.
The Air Resources Board has the power to shape markets and affect billions of dollars in industry investment.
The board controls the formulation of fuels and chemicals used in vehicles and businesses, how new cars are built, and the composition of consumer products. Regulations on auto tailpipes have led to new cars that are 95% cleaner than those of a decade ago, a key reason for recent air quality gains in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco.
“Our track record is very good, and we are up to the task,” said the board chairman, Alan Lloyd. “We have an enormous opportunity but also an enormous responsibility, and we are not as irresponsible as some people have characterized.”
The law marks the first attempt by a state to cut tailpipe emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases that scientists link to global warming. Vehicles produce about 60% of those gases in California, with cars, trucks, vans and sport utility vehicles contributing the most.
Bold as it is, however, the step taken by California will not make much of a dent in global warming. The state produces 6% of the nation’s greenhouse gases, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“I am under no illusions that this bill by itself will contribute significantly to the reductions in greenhouse gases, but it’s a good beginning and a good example for others to follow,” Davis said.
The auto industry, which mounted an expensive TV campaign to defeat the legislation, argued that the law could result in new taxes, which are prohibited by the law, and warned that vehicles manufactured to meet the state’s new requirements are likely to be less safe.
“We think there are all kinds of problems in having individual states like California weigh into this arena,” said Michael Love, national regulatory affairs manager at Toyota Motor Corp.
Jerry Martin, Air Resources Board spokesman, said, “Clearly it’s a new regulatory front. We are going to be asked to control gases we have not in the past.”
He added, “We’ll start with technologies that are already in existence, they’ll be phased in over time and the drivers will never notice the difference. We’ll end up with better cars as a result.”
The air board, which consists of 11 members appointed by the governor, will start by looking at dozens of options, ranging from engines that shut down a couple of cylinders on the open road to improved seals on air-conditioning systems to prevent refrigerant leaks. A comprehensive plan will be developed after public workshops in the next three years.
The board has identified 20 technologies, including several used already by foreign auto manufacturers, that can be added to new cars to cut greenhouse gases. Some also improve gas mileage and performance and reduce other air pollutants. Manufacturers in Europe have been using some of them voluntarily for years.
For consumers, some of the innovations could result in cars with quicker acceleration, sleeker lines and better gas mileage, said Charles Lave, a UC Irvine economist and member of a National Academy of Science panel that examined auto fuel efficiency standards.
“There’s lots and lots of these technologies. It’s proven stuff, not speculative,” Lave said. “There are plenty of these improvements left. The only question is whether we will use the increased efficiency to scratch off the stoplight faster, get more fuel efficiency or get some of each.”
One technique, variable valve timing, which is used on some new Honda models, controls fuel combustion by opening and closing piston valves as the engine works harder. Another method uses extra gears on automatic transmissions. The high-performance Audi A4 uses a “continuously variable transmission” to continually adjust gears to increase performance and efficiency.
More cars use 42-volt battery systems to power electronic gizmos, including VCRs and heated seats. But the extra electric power can be harnessed to turn an engine on and off while idling.
The Toyota Prius and Honda’s hybrid Civic and Insight use combinations of batteries and internal combustion engines in their drive trains. Low-friction oils, tires and materials also can make cars more efficient.
Auto companies will be granted broad flexibility to meet the state’s demands. The new law requires that auto makers use “maximum feasible and cost-effective measures” to reduce an unspecified quantity of greenhouse gases from cars and light trucks. Regulators must consider the effects on jobs and businesses, but not raise taxes, lower speed limits or ban certain types of vehicles. One provision allows auto companies to escape tailpipe reductions altogether by reducing greenhouse gases emitted from their manufacturing plants in other states.
The bill faces some challenges.
For two decades, auto makers have blocked attempts to raise the standards. California entered the fray after the U.S. Senate voted not to increase fuel efficiency standards beyond the current 27.5 miles per gallon for passenger cars.
“It’s clear what California is trying to do. It’s born of a frustration with the Bush administration on climate change and born of frustration with the inconclusive nature of debate in Congress over fuel efficiency standards. California is trying to fill a void on greenhouse gas emissions and auto fuel economy,” said Paul Portney, president of Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C., research institution on energy and environment issues.
Gregory Dana, vice president of environmental affairs at the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said, “They say it’s a CO2 [carbon dioxide] bill, but it’s a fuel economy bill. That’s all it is.”
One strategy that may be used by auto makers to overturn the law is a challenge to California’s authority to regulate carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, as a “pollutant.” Unlike other tailpipe emissions, it does not contribute to smog and has not been regulated before.
Auto makers are contemplating placing a referendum on the California ballot to repeal the law.
However, a poll that the Public Policy Institute of California released earlier this month showed that 81% of respondents favor requiring automakers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles by 2009.