In a move that could change the way cars are designed nationwide, Gov. Gray Davis on Monday signed into law legislation that makes California the first state to combat global warming by requiring reduced tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases.
The Democratic governor's widely expected decision to sign the bill by Assemblywoman Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) is a triumph for environmentalists, who suffered a bitter defeat in Washington earlier this year when they attempted to increase gas mileage standards.
With passage of the measure in California, the nation's largest car market, environmentalists hope not only to reduce gas-forming emissions, but also to force changes that will improve fuel efficiency of automobiles sold across the country.
"We are going to set an example for the rest of the country," Davis told a cheering crowd at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, saying that he was leading the way because Washington politicians had failed to act. "I am convinced that other states will follow."
The law augments the authority of the agency responsible for regulating air pollution, the California Air Resources Board. But it provides the board with only a hazy outline of how to reach its goal of achieving the "maximum feasible reduction" of greenhouse gases.
It requires that new cars sold here seven years from now emit less of the gases that trap heat in the atmosphere. It falls to the Air Resources Board to figure out the technology.
The board must come up with its recommendations by 2005, amid what is certain to be sustained scrutiny and legal squabbling by auto makers. The emissions standard it sets will then apply to all cars and trucks from the 2009 model year onward.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group that comprises all the major car makers except Honda, announced that it would sue to challenge the new law, arguing that it exceeded the state's jurisdiction.
Because the best known way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in automobiles is to make ones that burn less fuel, auto makers argued from the start that the California measure was a backdoor attempt to go around the federal government and, in effect, set a new national fuel-efficiency standard. In commenting on the bill, Davis himself said, "I would prefer to have Washington take the lead, but in the absence of that we have no choice but to do our part.... It is my hope that other states will do the same thing."
California is the only state allowed, under federal law, to set air pollution standards higher than those imposed by the federal government. Other states can then follow California's lead, giving the state the ability to set national standards.
The state air board has a lengthy record of pushing auto makers to pursue changes against their will. California regulations were the first to require vehicle makers to use catalytic converters, seat belts, clean diesel fuel, unleaded fuel, alternative fuels, reformulated gasoline and electric and hybrid cars--often despite industry denials that the changes could be accomplished or would be accepted by consumers.
The Air Resources Board has the power to shape markets and affect billions of dollars in industry investment.
The board controls the formulation of fuels and chemicals used in vehicles and businesses, how new cars are built, and the composition of consumer products. Regulations on auto tailpipes have led to new cars that are 95% cleaner than those of a decade ago, a key reason for recent air quality gains in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco.
"Our track record is very good, and we are up to the task," said the board chairman, Alan Lloyd. "We have an enormous opportunity but also an enormous responsibility, and we are not as irresponsible as some people have characterized."
The law marks the first attempt by a state to cut tailpipe emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases that scientists link to global warming. Vehicles produce about 60% of those gases in California, with cars, trucks, vans and sport utility vehicles contributing the most.
Bold as it is, however, the step taken by California will not make much of a dent in global warming. The state produces 6% of the nation's greenhouse gases, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"I am under no illusions that this bill by itself will contribute significantly to the reductions in greenhouse gases, but it's a good beginning and a good example for others to follow," Davis said.
The auto industry, which mounted an expensive TV campaign to defeat the legislation, argued that the law could result in new taxes, which are prohibited by the law, and warned that vehicles manufactured to meet the state's new requirements are likely to be less safe.
"We think there are all kinds of problems in having individual states like California weigh into this arena," said Michael Love, national regulatory affairs manager at Toyota Motor Corp.