U.S. Senate Preempts California's Curbs on Small-Engine Smog

Times Staff Writers

The Senate approved a measure Wednesday that would block efforts by California and other states to reduce the pollution spewed by small gasoline engines in machines such as lawn mowers, tractors, forklifts and chain saws.

The amendment, approved on a voice vote, represents a major setback for the state's strategy for fighting the smog that continues to plague Southern California despite half a century of pollution-control efforts, state officials say. It would mark only the second congressional decision since 1974 to preempt California's special authority under the Clean Air Act to set tougher pollution regulations than federal standards.

The amendment, attached to a spending bill for a variety of government agencies, would give the federal Environmental Protection Agency sole authority to regulate gasoline engines smaller than 50 horsepower and would direct the agency to propose new regulations for the engines by the end of next year.

The House, which has not addressed the issue, is likely to accept the Senate's provision, according to opponents and supporters of the amendment.

The measure is the latest in a series of actions by the Bush administration or the GOP-controlled Congress to challenge or curtail California's environmental laws on issues including offshore oil drilling and hybrid cars.

Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.), the measure's sponsor, argued that California's regulation would drive 22,000 U.S. manufacturing jobs abroad.

"Today's passage of my job protection amendment is a victory for the thousands of families in Missouri, and across the nation, whose jobs were threatened by California's attempt to force-feed the nation dangerous new regulations without concern for job loss or safety," Bond said.

Briggs & Stratton Corp., the world's largest producer of these engines, contended that revamping its production facilities in response to California's regulations would be so expensive that it would close the facilities, two of which are in Missouri, and move production overseas. But in a submission to the Securities and Exchange Commission, Briggs & Stratton said California's regulations would not have a "material effect on its financial condition."

The company spent $520,000 over the 18 months ending in June to lobby Congress, according to reports filed with the secretary of the Senate.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) argued that the amendment would deprive California and other states of an essential tool to meet air-quality standards. "Since the beginning ... the Clean Air Act has recognized that states with extraordinary or extreme pollution need flexibility to reduce pollution and protect public health," she said.

California, which started controlling air pollution before the rest of the country, still has the nation's dirtiest air. The Clean Air Act specifically gives California the right to make regulations tougher than federal rules. It also gives other states the option to adopt California's tougher rules, and they often do.

In the first instance since 1974 of Congress overriding California's authority to set tougher pollution controls, the Clean Air Act amendments in 1990 denied the state the right to set more stringent pollution standards for locomotives and large farm equipment.

At the California Air Resources Board, officials said the measure adopted by the Senate on Wednesday would nullify five state regulations, including one approved Sept. 25 to cut emissions from lawn and garden equipment by 35%.

The measure approved by the Senate would forbid California from regulating lawnmowers, edgers, off-road motorcycles, outboard boat engines, leaf blowers, chain saws and portable generators. The result could be 170 more tons of smog-forming emissions daily, a 4% increase in total emissions statewide, air-quality officials said.

"We are going backward. These engines are going to get dirtier next year," said Tom Cackette, deputy executive officer for the California Air Resources Board. "It will be equivalent to putting another 2.5 million cars on the road."

California air-quality officials are scrambling to meet a 2010 federal deadline to cut smog to safe levels. Yet the Los Angeles region suffered its worst air quality in six years this summer and posted its first first-stage ozone alert since 1998.

Some experts believe regulators are losing ground in the war on smog and warn of possibly worsening air pollution in coming years, in the absence of dramatic measures to cut emissions. Meanwhile, the San Joaquin Valley, by one important measure of ozone, is experiencing even worse smog than the Los Angeles region.

Air-quality officials said it would be much harder and more expensive to make the additional cuts in pollution from other sources, most of which are already much more aggressively regulated than small engines.

In Sacramento, advisors to Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger said that, if left unchecked, the Senate action could undermine his efforts to fulfill a campaign pledge to cut California smog in half by the end of the decade. "We oppose any efforts that would reduce our ability to improve air quality," said Terry Tamminen, incoming secretary for the California Environmental Protection Agency.

"This will make it extremely difficult for states to meet health-based air quality standards now and in the future," said S. William Becker, executive director of the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators and the Assn. of Local Air Pollution Control Officials.

State air-quality officials and environmental groups expressed disappointment with Feinstein, who led the opposition to the Bond amendment, because she failed to ask for a recorded vote to eliminate the measure.

Howard Gantman, Feinstein's spokesman, said she decided that her best chance to defeat the measure would come during a House-Senate conference to reconcile differences between the two chambers' versions of the bill. The senator believes it will be an "uphill battle," he said.

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