Declaring it "a disaster for California," Sen. Pete Wilson warned Saturday that a landmark clean air compromise reached last week in the House of Representatives would result in smoggier air throughout the state.
The Republican lawmaker said that while the compromise reached between two longtime foes over ways to strengthen the Clean Air Act would extend California's stricter tailpipe emission standards to all 50 states starting in 1994, it would also strip California of its authority to set tighter standards for off-road engines and transfer that power to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The net effect, Wilson said in a telephone interview from Washington, would mean more--not less--air pollution in California. Wilson said if the preemption provision stands, the four-county South Coast Air Basin will fail to meet clean air standards as planned by the year 2007.
Wilson said that by the year 2009 the emissions from off-road engines in the Los Angeles basin would be equivalent to 6 million vehicles or 30 large oil refineries.
"I'm going to throw my body before the train before I ever allow that to get out of the Senate. It's a disaster not just for the L.A. basin but for every area in the state (that fails to meet clean air standards)," Wilson said.
When the compromise was reached last week between Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) it was almost universally hailed as the end of a years-long House debate over how to strengthen the federal Clean Air Act.
Dingell, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has long opposed any amendments to the act that would be costly to auto makers, a good proportion of which are in his Detroit district. Waxman, chairman of the Health and Environment subcommittee, represents part of the nation's smoggiest metropolitan area.
In announcing the breakthrough, Waxman and Dingell pledged to accept no amendments in the House that would alter the compromise, which is using President Bush's clean air proposal as its framework. Waxman said the bill does not have every provision sought by environmentalists, "But when it's looked at as a whole, I think almost everyone will agree that it's balanced, fair, tough and will bring effective and sensible reductions in air pollution."
But mounting opposition in California, along with expectations that the Senate will move a stronger bill of its own, left the future of the compromise in doubt.
Wilson's views were backed by key state and regional officials, state Environmental Affairs Secretary Jananne Sharpless, California Energy Commission Chairman Charles R. Imbrecht and James M. Lents, executive officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District.
"There is a peril in this. California could really find itself under the stick," Bill Sessa, a spokesman for Sharpless, said.
Sessa pointed out that the "off-road engine" category includes more than off-road recreational vehicles. "It's literally everything that doesn't have a license plate. It includes construction equipment, engines on offshore oil rigs, ships and locomotives.
"Were this amendment to stay in the bill it would preclude us from regulating a major cause of our pollution problem," Sessa said. Off-road engines account for 12% of all hydrocarbon emissions in the state and 15% of oxides of nitrogen emissions. The two are the chief ingredients of photochemical smog.
Lents, of the AQMD, said in an interview: "It isn't good. It's not a good portion of the compromise."
But Lents said it was not clear whether the compromise would result in worse air or simply a wash when increased emissions from off-road engines are balanced by tougher tailpipe standards on out-of-state motor vehicles, which make up 25% of the cars on California roads.
"It (the amendment) doesn't give us as much as we would like. If the EPA decides not to regulate these off-road engines . . . then you're getting close to a trade-off. The trade-off would be sort of neutral for California," Lents said.
Wilson said Saturday he believed it unlikely that the EPA would enforce a California standard on off-road engines. "You sure as hell would have no guarantee and you'd have people busy lobbying to see that they don't," he said. "The expectation would be there would be no stringent standards."
The Senate is moving its own clean air legislation and ultimately differences between the two will have to be resolved in a joint conference committee.