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Stakes High as State Targets Greenhouse Gas From Cars

Other states could copy a successful effort. Legal challenges from carmakers are likely.

September 23, 2004|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

California, long a leader in cutting-edge rules to combat air pollution, is poised this week to adopt the world's first regulation to reduce car emissions that contribute to global warming.

The state's latest attempt to be an environmental trailblazer is almost certain to bring a legal challenge from the automobile industry, which accuses the state of using global warming as an excuse to set a new gasoline mileage standard for the entire nation.

It also sets up a confrontation between Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Bush administration over the scope of the state's authority to regulate cars.

California alone cannot reduce global warming. The state emits less than 1% of the heat-trapping gases -- chiefly carbon dioxide -- that many scientists believe are raising the planet's temperature. Only about a third of the state's emissions come from cars. California makes up about 11% of the national automobile market.

However, state officials expect other states -- and perhaps other countries -- to follow their lead by passing car-exhaust restrictions, combining to make a collective dent in the global warming problem.

Several states, including New York and New Jersey, have indicated they plan to do just that, using a federal law that allows other states to adopt tougher air-quality rules if California does so first. Canadian officials are also studying California's regulation as a prototype for their own rule.

The regulation would require automakers to begin cutting greenhouse-gas emissions in passenger vehicles in the 2009 model year. The requirements would grow steadily tougher over seven years. By 2016, companies would have to reduce the heat-trapping gases from the tailpipes of all their cars and trucks by an average of 29%.

The rule could prove to be one of the most expensive environmental regulations ever for consumers. Californians would likely pay roughly $1,000 more for every new car and truck, state officials estimate. Auto industry representatives maintain that the cost would more likely be $3,000. The expense would be offset, in part, by lower fuel costs from better gas mileage.

Environmentalists are already hailing the global warming rule as California's greatest contribution to cleaning up the planet since the state forced car companies to install pollution-cutting catalytic converters four decades ago, leading to their adoption across the country and around the world.

Some business groups, meanwhile, are calling it the biggest California boondoggle since the state in 1990 made the same companies invest millions of dollars in electric car technology that never panned out.

"We are rather fatalistic at this point," said Fred Webber, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a group of nine automakers that includes General Motors, DaimlerChrysler and Toyota. Webber said he spoke to Schwarzenegger's environmental protection secretary, Terry Tamminen, and other state officials recently, and concluded that "there is a sense this is going to happen."

"If California goes forward with this rule, we will have no option but to sue," he added.

Schwarzenegger, who promised to support the global warming rule during his election campaign, made it a litmus test recently when appointing five new members to the California Air Resources Board. The board is expected to approve the regulation today or Friday during a meeting in Los Angeles.

The technology needed to cut the heat-trapping gases -- such as variable-speed transmissions that constantly shift to find the most efficient gear -- is already in use in some cars, helping to improve fuel efficiency and overall performance. But it costs more.

For example, a no-frills 2005 Honda Civic coupe has a suggested retail price of $14,360. The same car with a variable-speed transmission costs $14,860. To meet the new California regulation, car companies would likely need to offer several such technological enhancements as standard items.

While the regulation would clearly raise the cost of buying a car, state officials maintain that its requirements would be simpler for the auto industry to meet than many other state environmental regulations.

"We have pushed technology very hard before" with electric cars, said Tom Cackett, the air board's deputy director. "But we are really not pushing the envelope this time. We can point to every technology that is needed to make these reductions on some car out there today. We are not requiring any new inventions."

State officials argue that although consumers will pay more up front, they will save money in the long run because the vehicles will get better gas mileage. Automakers call that questionable, noting that using the state's own calculations, it would take more than a dozen years of driving to recoup the extra cost.

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