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Tough Car Emissions Rules OKd

September 25, 2004|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

The California Air Resources Board on Friday approved landmark regulation to tackle global warming by forcing cuts in carbon dioxide exhaust from passenger cars and trucks.

The unanimous vote, following two days of hearings, was lauded by environmentalists as a historic moment.

But the board's action is almost certain to trigger a lawsuit from automakers, who accuse California of using the threat of global warming to force new gasoline mileage standards on the entire country.

The decision is also likely to lead to a political battle between Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has pledged to support the tougher rules, and the federal government over the power to regulate motor vehicles.

"We cannot afford to wait until all the evidence is in" on global warming, said Alan C. Lloyd, the board's chairman. "We sent letters to all the auto companies in the world," asking for cooperation, he added. "The response, the silence, was deafening."

Auto industry representatives who attended the hearing Friday filed out silently, and deferred comment to industry groups.

"The fact is that this will not do anything about global warming," said Gloria Berquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an industry trade group representing nine major car companies. "But it will be very costly for California consumers."

The regulation would require automakers to begin cutting emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from cars and light trucks starting in the 2009 model year. By 2016, companies would have to reduce the heat-trapping gases from the tailpipes of all cars and light trucks by an average of 29%.

Virtually the only way to accomplish that task is to improve mileage through existing technology like continuously variable transmissions that automatically seek the most efficient gear, and engines that shut off a cylinder when it is not needed. Those enhancements could add about $1,000 to the price of a new vehicle, state officials estimate. Auto industry representatives say the average cost would be closer to $3,000.

State officials argued that consumers would recoup some of the added expense over time, through better gas mileage. Automakers countered that it would take more than a dozen years to recover those costs.

State officials also failed to factor in the costs to retool manufacturing plants, according to Thomas C. Austin, a former California Air Resources Board executive officer now working as a paid consultant to the auto industry.

Austin also sharply criticized his former staff's mileage estimates used to calculate consumers' savings.

State officials said the problems he identified did not change their overall conclusions that the rule was cost effective.

The rule by itself is expected to have little effect on global warming, because California is responsible for less than 1% of the world's heat-trapping gases, and only about a third of those come from passenger vehicles. But other states, and possibly other countries, are expected to follow California's lead, creating a significant cumulative impact.

California is the only state that has the power to approve air pollution regulations stronger than those set by the federal government under the Clean Air Act. But other states are free to adopt California's rules as an alternative to the federal standard.

While California only represents about 11% of the national car market, the states that have indicated support for the global warming rule, which include New York and Connecticut, account for more than 25% of all cars sold in the country. If enough states follow California's lead, some experts predict that auto manufacturers will make changes to cars sold everywhere, because it would be more economical for them.

Alarmed by that possibility, auto industry groups are promising a legal battle. "This proposal is, in fact, a fuel economy rule, and is thus preempted by federal law," Fred Webber, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, told board members during the hearings.

In addition to overcoming lawsuits, California must show the federal government that it has a "compelling and extraordinary" reason to require tougher rules. The state has received such waivers many times to combat smog, which is notoriously bad in Los Angeles. Such an argument may be tougher to make for a problem that is not regional, but global.

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