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U.S., State Clash Over Environment

Bush administration challenges to tough regulations underscore a philosophical split on how to deal with a range of pollution problems.

September 14, 2003|Gary Polakovic | Times Staff Writer

California's environmental protection laws, among the toughest in the nation, are being challenged frequently as the Bush administration acts to blunt regulations viewed as inconsistent with national policy.

The administration has weighed in on matters ranging from offshore oil drilling to air pollution to toxic waste cleanups, outraging state officials and environmentalists, who warn that the actions threaten to undermine the role California has played as a laboratory for innovative environmental solutions intended to improve the quality of people's lives.

James L. Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said Friday that the administration's challenges have involved very narrow points of law and are not intended to undercut the state's authority. "California has very broad authorities -- under most of the environmental laws -- to implement the federal laws and to identify the standards that are of greatest relevance to Californians," he said. "We retain the strongest deference to that. We are strong proponents of federalism. We are very interested in helping the states define their own future."

Other defenders of the administration, however, contend that California lawmakers have overstepped their authority in efforts to regulate such matters as automobile fuel efficiency that should be left to the federal government. Since President Bush took office, the administration has joined with the auto industry in a successful lawsuit to weaken California's mandate to build nonpolluting electric cars.

Under Bush, the Environmental Protection Agency has called for eliminating a key measurement used to determine whether smog levels have reached unacceptable levels. The practical effect, the state's air quality regulators say, would be many more years of unhealthy air. The administration has consistently challenged California's right to have a say in regulating drilling in federal waters three or more miles off the coast.

Late last month, the Justice Department backed oil companies and engine manufacturers in a lawsuit pending before the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn regulations enacted by the South Coast Air Quality Management District. The AQMD intended to hasten the conversion of fleets of taxis, buses, trash trucks and other vehicles to alternative fuels.

Also in August, the EPA announced that the Clean Air Act precludes state regulation of carbon dioxide emissions linked to global warming, as California has sought to do with a law passed last year. Experts say the EPA's stance will bolster industry groups that seek to overturn the California law and similar measures taken by other states. "It adds a huge weight on behalf of industry because the EPA, under all the case law, is granted deference in interpreting the laws. That carries a lot more weight than any private party. It's a huge advantage in these cases," one EPA official said.

The California Air Resources Board has announced that it will sue the federal government to force it to reverse its decision and recognize carbon dioxide as an air pollutant.

"This is crazy what's going on. The assault is unending and astonishing in its size and scope," said Winston H. Hickox, California's environmental protection secretary. "I find it astonishing that this is going on, and the pace with which the Bush administration is showing its anti-environment colors."

The differences have come into sharp focus as Gov. Gray Davis has put a renewed emphasis on environmental protection as he struggles to stave off Republican challengers in the Oct. 7 recall election. At the same time, as air pollution across the L.A. region has taken a turn for the worse, air quality officials say the federal government is impeding their efforts to make the air safer for millions of people.

"We are experiencing our smoggiest summer in more than five years, and the federal government is trying to take away the very tools we need to protect the health of 16 million Southern Californians," said Barry R. Wallerstein, the AQMD's executive officer.

The disputes underscore a philosophical split between California and GOP leaders in Washington. Faced with some of the nation's most pressing pollution problems, California continues much as it has for the last few decades, aggressively promoting regulations in a bid to stimulate development of cleaner technologies. The White House favors voluntary cleanups and flexible, market-driven strategies that many business leaders say get sufficient cleanup for less cost.

"There's a real difference in political preferences on a lot of environmental policies. And a lot of conflicts are emerging because of that," said David Vogel, a professor of business ethics at UC Berkeley. "You have an administration that, in many environmental areas, isn't doing a lot. And the states are trying to do more and more."

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