State Emissions Standards Finally Approved

It’s a strange world when a Democratic president does in six days what Republican governor could not convince a Republican president to do in four years of letter-writing, lawsuits and international embarrassment.

Yet, that’s happening today, as President Barack Obama lowers the Environmental Protection Agency’s long-standing blockade of California’s tough automobile emissions standards.

Make that proposed standards, since they’ve never been implemented. The state Legislature approved them in 2002, and in 2005 Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger officially asked the EPA to sign off.

California’s intent was to reduce greenhouse emissions from automobiles beginning in this 2009. The California Air Resources Board estimated that by model year 2016, the regulations would reduce emissions nearly 30 percent.

As home to two of the most polluted air basins in the country – the South Coast Basin consisting of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties and the San Joaquin Valley Basin that includes King, Kern, Tulare, Fresno, Merced, Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties – automobile emissions are not just a matter of global warming in California.

Emissions also are a big chunk of a pollution problem that’s an immediate health issue – one that costs people living in polluted areas more than a thousand dollars a year in hospital admissions, asthma treatment and emergency-room visits, according to a November 2008 study at California State University, Fullerton.

Officials with the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District have estimated that vehicles make up more than half of the ozone-causing gasses, which are the biggest factor in summertime pollution. Curbing ozone has been a tough challenge for the districts, since officials have no way to control tailpipes just passing through.

California officials probably never expected a problem when they asked the EPA to approve the emissions crackdown in 2005. Under federal law, the state can implement its own air pollution standards as long as they’re as tough as the federal ones and as long as the EPA signs off on the waiver. In 30 years, California had asked for 40 waivers and none had ever been denied.

Despite repeated pleas from Schwarzenegger – letters to President George W. Bush in April 2006 and again six months later – the EPA wouldn’t budge.

In between the two letters, Schwarzenegger went international, cutting a deal with British Prime Minister Tony Blair to come up with a plan to curb greenhouse gases. Later, Blair specifically praised Schwarzenegger for California’s still-unimplemented emissions law, crediting the governor’s tough stand with spurring Bush to join international leaders in endorsing worldwide emissions crackdown.

Stateside, the EPA and Bush remained silent.

Finally, in November 2007, California and 14 other states sued the EPA for its failure to decide. A month later, the agency decided all right, denying California the waiver.

That rejection came just months after a federal judge in Vermont ruled that states have the right to regulate emissions. In losing that lawsuit, automakers also claimed the technology didn’t exist to meet the tough standards and the costs of developing it would devastate the industry.

Congressional Democrats vowed to investigate the EPA, and California sued again. Last week, Schwarzenegger asked Obama to reconsider. This time, he was heard.

According to The New York Times, the California rules still will have to go through months of public review. Obama will order temporary regulations to be completed by March so automakers have enough time to retool for vehicles sold in 2011, the Times said.

It’s two model years later than originally intended, but at last the Democrat in Washington is giving the California Republican what he wants.