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Pollution's Federal Friends

September 21, 2003

Californians care about clearing the still-smoggy skies and protecting the state's 1,100-mile oceanfront from oil spills and urban runoff. For that reason, and because the problem of pollution has been more acute in California than elsewhere, the Legislature and state and local agencies have led most other states in innovative, forceful efforts to improve air and water quality. The Bush administration's response? See you in court.

Never mind the administration's states' rights rhetoric; the Justice Department joined oil companies and engine makers last month in a federal lawsuit to block rules that push conversion of transit buses, trash trucks and other vehicles from soot-belching diesel to cleaner fuels in Southern California. The Environmental Protection Agency insists that the federal Clean Air Act trumps state plans to curb emissions linked to global warming.

Last year, the White House asked a federal court to revive oil drilling off the coast of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. When that suit failed, the Commerce Department rewrote rules to give federal agencies more power over states when it came to drilling and other activities that could taint ocean water and poison fish and shorebirds.

California isn't the Bush administration's only target, nor is the big-footing confined to environmental policy.

Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft has sued to derail the assisted-suicide law approved by Oregon voters. He seeks to undermine California's 1996 voter-approved initiative allowing sick people to grow or smoke marijuana to help them ease the pain of cancer, AIDS and other diseases. And the Bush-backed credit reporting bill, now before the Senate, would block the far stronger identity theft protections in the privacy law that Gov. Gray Davis signed last month.

The administration's environmental push-back may stem from California's being a pacesetter, a role that grows out of its market size. The state's auto emissions standards, for example, drive pollution-control technology nationally just because so many cars and trucks are sold here. But automakers, oil refiners and manufacturers don't want to march at California's fast beat anymore, and, as Bush backers, they've had the president's ear.

Bush often says states can craft better solutions to their problems than can the behemoth federal government. California has figured out environmental policies that work, and the markets are freely and properly responding to these.

So why can't the feds, especially if they're not going to make matters better, just leave California alone?

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