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Clean Air Is the State's Right

October 14, 2002

The Bush administration is staging an unprecedented and unwarranted attack on California's right to regulate its own air quality. The Justice Department, by joining a General Motors and DaimlerChrysler lawsuit against the state's zero-emission vehicle requirement, disregards California's explicit right to set air quality standards. The federal government is entirely in the wrong and should withdraw from the lawsuit immediately.

When Congress passed the Clean Air Act more than 30 years ago, it gave California the right to establish its own air pollution standards, regardless of federal rules, because the state had a unique and severe automobile-caused smog problem. California became the nation's pioneer in demanding cleaner-burning cars; there was no help from the automotive companies, which fought the effort and dragged their heels all the way. The state is still in the forefront, and the industry continues to balk.

Early this year, auto makers sued to overturn a revised state rule allowing hybrid autos that run alternately on gasoline-fueled engines and batteries to count against the zero-emission requirement. The rule was designed to help the auto industry, which is not prepared to meet the state requirement that at least 10% of new cars sold beginning in 2003 be zero-emission vehicles. Before the rule was revised, that meant electric cars.

The courts and the state Air Resources Board have, in any case, delayed that requirement for two years to give manufacturers more time to comply.

Hybrid cars such as those made by Honda and Toyota are on the market and growing in popularity. General Motors and DaimlerChrysler have announced plans to produce hybrids soon. True zero-emission fuel cell vehicles will be produced by Honda and Toyota by the end of this year but will be too expensively for wide distribution.

The Bush administration claims that the state, by regulating emissions, is trying to set a gasoline mileage standard, which only the federal government can do. That's a sham argument.

By the reasoning of the White House, the suit should have been filed decades ago, when California began demanding cleaner cars. Not that it wouldn't be a good thing for California to be able to set its own fuel use standards, since Congress and President Bush refuse to stiffen the current ones, adopted in the 1980s.

Certainly, the less fuel burned, the less pollution escapes into the air. But fuel savings are an incidental byproduct of California's pollution controls. Without the California zero-emission mandate over their heads, auto makers would not be where they are today with hybrid and fuel-cell technology.

The Bush White House, even as it has chipped away at federal clean air and water regulations, professed to believe in states' rights. With this lawsuit, it cynically cozies up to auto makers while hobbling California's efforts to improve the air that its vulnerable children breathe.

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