Gov. sues U.S. over clean-air standards

Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO -- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Thursday sued the Bush administration and said he was prepared to “sue again and sue again” until California gets permission to impose its own tough standards on automakers to curb global warming.

The governor, backed by Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, said he is frustrated to be waiting for nearly two years for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to waive federal regulations and give the state’s plan a green light.

“We are now ready to implement the nation’s cleanest standards for vehicle emissions, and we cannot do that, of course, until the federal government gives us a waiver,” Schwarzenegger said at a Capitol news conference. “Our health and our environment are too important to delay any longer.”


At issue for California is the 2009 model year and the state’s desire to get prompt action from the EPA so automakers will have time to redesign their passenger cars and light vehicles, including SUVs.

Over the last four decades, the EPA has granted more than 50 requests from California to force automakers to meet tougher anti-pollution standards than imposed nationally. The state used the mechanism to pioneer such requirements as catalytic converters to reduce tailpipe emissions and on-board computers to alert drivers if their smog-control equipment malfunctions.

Thursday’s move was a major assault on the federal government’s response to global warming and what critics perceive to be a slow and environmentally questionable response to what many national and world leaders consider the No. 1 threat to the planet.

The U.S. Supreme Court this summer turned down the Bush administration’s effort to fight the state regulation of global warming as it cleared the way for the EPA to approve California’s regulations.

The justices ruled that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change should be considered pollutants under the U.S. Clean Air Act.

The high court’s decision “clearly bolsters California’s case and should make it more difficult for the EPA to deny the waiver,” said Ann E. Carlson, a professor of environmental law at UCLA. Carlson noted that the EPA never denied a California request for new tools to deal with local smog conditions. But the agency could balk at allowing California to set the national agenda when it comes to tackling a global problem such as climate change, she said.


EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson has promised to act on California’s request by year’s end. But California officials said they were pressing ahead with their lawsuit out of fear that the White House could order Johnson to postpone his decision.

“There’s no legal basis for Washington to stand in our way,” said Schwarzenegger.

Under the Clean Air Act, California has special rights to chart its own course in crafting more stringent pollution controls, and other states can choose to follow the California model. So far, 14 states have passed laws incorporating California’s greenhouse gas tailpipe standards. Together with California, they represent 40% of the U.S. population.

The coalition of states “is filling the void left by the Bush administration’s refusal to protect the environment,” said New York state Atty. Gen. Andrew M. Cuomo, the group’s leader. The group has filed legal papers making it a party to California’s suit in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. California also filed a related lawsuit against the EPA in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington.

The California regulations, which were approved by the Legislature and signed into law by then-Gov. Gray Davis in 2002, are a key component of a landmark global warming law signed last year by Schwarzenegger.

The law aims to cut California’s carbon emissions by one-fourth over the next 12 years. Such a reduction is the equivalent of taking 6.5 million vehicles off California roads, Schwarzenegger said.

“Under the Clean Air Act, California is recognized as an innovator,” said Brown, noting that the federal government has approved at least 50 such requests from California since the early 1970s. The lawsuit, Brown added, “is not about politics. It’s about science, it’s about human well-being and it’s about innovation.”

The Bush administration is ignoring that science, charged Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board. “They are running out the clock in hopes somebody else will deal with this problem,” she said.

California can’t afford to wait, the lawsuit says, because considerable evidence exists that “global warming is making California’s climate worse.” Increasing greenhouse gas emissions are raising average temperatures, reducing snowfall in the mountains, shifting northward the prevailing storm track and worsening air quality, the suit contends.

An altered climate has contributed to a record drought in 2006 and 2007 in Southern California and record rains two years earlier in Los Angeles, the suit says.

Automakers, though not a party to the California complaint against the EPA, want to do their part to combat global warming but don’t favor states creating “a patchwork quilt of regulations at the state level,” said Dave McCurdy, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

The Washington-based trade group, which represents the Big Three U.S. automakers and a number of foreign firms, is supporting a bill in Congress that would increase auto fuel economy by up to 40% by 2022, he said.

Automakers have filed their own suit in federal court in Fresno to overturn California’s greenhouse regulations. They recently lost a similar case in Vermont, where a federal judge upheld state regulations based on the California standards.

Automakers should call off their lawyers and join California and the other states in using available expertise to meet the new emission standards, said Nichols of the Air Resources Board.

“We’re talking about cars with more efficient drivetrains, with more efficient steering mechanisms. We’re talking about cars that are about 18% more efficient on average than what’s available today but with completely known technology,” she said.

“Those cars should be coming onto the roads beginning in 2009.”



On its own road

Since the late 1960s, California has had special rights under the U.S. Clean Air Act to set air pollution controls more stringent than federal regulations. But those regulations first must be approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency before they can take effect.

Typically, many other states follow California and adopt the same rules. This generally ensures EPA approval and creates a more uniform standard for automakers to meet. In all, the EPA has approved more than 50 requests from California and turned down none. Here are some of the major car requirements in which California exceeded federal standards.

1969: Tighter fuel tank caps and fuel lines to prevent gasoline evaporation.

1973: Catalytic converters to reduce emissions of smog-forming gases.

1986: On-board computer diagnostics to warn drivers that smog controls are not working.

1991: Low-emission smog standards for cars and other vehicles.

Source: California Air Resources Board