California's Christmas List: Clean Air

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Robert Landau / Corbis

Heavy traffic in Los Angeles.

American environmental policy often doesn't start in Washington — it starts in Sacramento. California has been at the forefront of anti-pollution legislation since the days of the Clean Air Act, which was passed in part because auto-induced smog was rendering southern California unlivable. The Clean Air Act actually allows California to set its own, stricter vehicle emissions standards — rather than deferring to Washington — and then allows other states to choose to follow Sacramento's lead. Following in that tradition, in 2005 California passed a law that would tighten greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, starting with 2009 models, eventually leading to a 30% reduction in overall global warming emissions by model year 2016. Sixteen other states, both red and blue, have moved to adopt California's standards since, but to implement the legislation, Sacramento needed a routine waiver from the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

It should have been simple — such a waiver has been granted to the nation's most populous state more than 50 times in the past. But for nearly two years, the EPA has delayed making a decision. The federal agency says it needs more time to make the right call; its critics claim the Bush Administration is playing politics. Finally today California ran out of patience, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state Attorney General Jerry Brown announced from the steps of the state Capitol that they would sue the EPA, demanding immediate action on the waiver. "California is ready to implement the nation's cleanest standards for vehicle emissions, but we cannot do that until the federal government grants us a waiver," said Schwarzenegger. If the EPA refuses to move, he'd be back. "We sue again, and sue again, and sue again, until we get it."

Fourteen other states joined California in the lawsuit, including New Jersey and Washington, and it seems to be on solid ground. Though the White House had initially taken the position that the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide was not a pollutant and therefore not covered by the Clean Air Act, the U.S. Supreme Court eviscerated that argument in a case taken against the EPA by Massachusetts back in April. That the EPA still hasn't ruled on California's waiver shows that "the administration is just trying to run out the clock on global warming," said Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust.

California's lawsuit wasn't a surprise — the state had actually planned on suing the EPA two weeks earlier, but had delayed the move because of California's wildfires, which themselves pumped up to 8 million metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. But the ultimate outcome of the lawsuit, and California's attempt to craft far-reaching emission standards, is less predictable. U.S. automakers are waging their own court battles against the regulations, and in September, a U.S. federal judge threw out a California state lawsuit that tried to hold auto manufacturers liable for the damages caused by carbon emissions. But in a separate case in the same month, a federal judge in Vermont rejected attempts by the auto industry to scuttle California's standards, concluding in his finding that "history suggests that the ingenuity of the [auto] industry, once put in gear, responds admirably to most technological challenges." History also suggests that when California takes the lead on environmental protection, the rest of the country will fall in line, sooner or later.