The Bush administration Wednesday denied California’s bid to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, dealing a blow to the state’s attempts to combat global warming and prompting an immediate vow from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to take the decision to court.
Environmental Protection Agency administrator Stephen L. Johnson denied the state’s request to implement its own landmark law, noting that an energy bill signed by President Bush earlier in the day would go a long way toward reducing emissions throughout the United States. The bill provides the most significant increase in vehicle fuel economy standards in more than three decades.
“The Bush administration is moving forward with a clear national solution, not a confusing patchwork of state rules,” Johnson said in announcing his decision.
The decision infuriated public officials and environmentalists from Washington to Sacramento, who fired the first shots in what is expected to be a pitched legal and political battle through the 2008 presidential campaign. At least 16 other states, with nearly half the nation’s population, have adopted or are considering California’s emission limits and could join in challenges to Wednesday’s decision.
Schwarzenegger assailed the EPA for “standing in our way” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “California sued to compel the agency to act on our waiver, and now we will sue to overturn today’s decision and allow Californians to protect our environment,” he said in a prepared statement. California Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols, whose agency requested the waiver two years ago, said there was no “patchwork” of standards. “There is a California greenhouse gas standard . . . which 16 other states would adopt, whereas there is no federal greenhouse gas standard,” she said.
“The Supreme Court told EPA it has to take action on global warming. It affects our health and our environment. It’s not just about fuel economy.”
Congress is likely to weigh in, although lawmakers may not be able to craft legislation that could survive a presidential veto.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D- Beverly Hills), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, condemned the decision as dictated by “politics . . . not facts” and promised to launch an investigation into how the decision was reached. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) called the decision “disgraceful.”
David Bookbinder, the Sierra Club’s chief climate counsel, vowed to take the fight to court. “These guys are 0 and 4 in court,” he said. “And they’re about to go 0-5.”
Bookbinder was referring to the Supreme Court’s decision this year that greenhouse gas regulation fell under the purview of the EPA and to several lower court decisions rebuffing the auto industry’s efforts to head off states’ regulation of tailpipe emissions.
The EPA waiver decision was a victory for the auto industry. David McCurdy, president and chief executive of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said in a prepared statement that a “patchwork quilt of inconsistent and competing fuel economy programs at the state level would only have created confusion, inefficiency and uncertainty for automakers and consumers.”
The federal Clean Air Act allows California to set anti-pollution standards stricter than those of the federal government, subject to EPA permission. California had been waiting for the EPA to act since the state petitioned the agency in 2005, and at least 16 other states had been hoping to follow California’s lead.
Johnson, who telephoned Schwarzenegger shortly before announcing his decision, said that with the energy bill, there was no need for separate state regulations that would cover only part of the country.
Under the energy bill, fuel efficiency for new cars and light trucks will increase 40% by 2020, for a fleet-wide average of 35 mpg, the biggest congressionally ordered increase since the fuel economy program was created in 1975. Cars and light trucks, including SUVs, account for about a fifth of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.
“I believe that Congress by passing a unified federal standard of 35 mpg delivers significant reductions that are more effective than a state-by-state approach,” Johnson said. “This applies to all 50 states, not one state, not 12 states, not 15 states. It applies to all 50 states, and that’s great for the economy, for national security and for the environment.”
Johnson said California’s request was unlike others that had been granted by his agency that covered “pollutants that predominantly impacted local and regional air quality.”
He said the EPA acted after he and his staff reviewed more than 100,000 written comments and “thousands of pages of technical and scientific documentation.”
Asked if there was White House influence, Johnson said, “My decision was an independent decision.”
State officials and environmentalists said the energy bill, although helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions nationally, was no substitute for California’s efforts, which would go further and achieve results faster.
Although the energy bill requires a fleet-wide average of 35 mpg by 2020, California officials say the state law would result in a 36-mpg average four years earlier.
California’s law would also regulate a broader spectrum of greenhouse gases, including refrigerants from vehicle air conditioners, and it governs the emissions of a range of alternative fuels, not just gasoline.
Under a waiver, California and other states could tighten their emission rules beyond 2020, Nichols noted.
California has adopted a goal of reducing greenhouse gases 80% by mid-century, the amount needed to avoid the most catastrophic effects of global warming, according to scientific consensus.
“Ours is a more comprehensive program which extends into the future,” Nichols said. “We get there faster, with a more flexible program.”
A waiver is also critical to the state’s efforts to comply with its 2006 landmark global warming law, which requires greenhouse gas emissions to be cut to 1990 levels by the year 2020.
“We need that waiver,” Nichols said. But if it isn’t granted, she added, “we will proceed by other means. I don’t want to speculate on what those will be.”
The decision also drew criticism from one of Johnson’s predecessors, William K. Reilly, a former EPA administrator in the first Bush administration, who said that although the energy bill “does indeed contain much that is commendable . . . the nation does not yet have the national comprehensive climate protection policy that would render state initiatives unnecessary.”
“California has frequently charted the course the country has followed,” he said.
Dan Becker, former director of the Sierra Club’s global warming program and now an environmental consultant, offered this reaction: “Bush to California: Drop dead!”
Simon reported from Washington and Wilson from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Margot Roosevelt and Marc Lifsher contributed to this report from Los Angeles.