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The state of clean air

April 10, 2006

CALIFORNIANS UNDERSTAND BETTER than most, and have for longer than most, that there is not an infinite supply of fresh air. After L.A. became as famous for its smog as for its celebrities, California jumped ahead of other states and the federal government in taking steps to counter air pollution from cars, with its first regulations of vehicle emissions in 1959 -- more than a decade before the founding of the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Now California is poised to lead the way again, with legislation to fight global warming by setting mandatory standards on greenhouse emissions. The goal is by 2020 to cut such emissions to 1990 levels. The federal government would do well to do what it did decades ago and follow California's example.

The state's pioneering role as a fighter of air pollution is recognized by federal law, which gives California the power to set tougher air-quality standards than the federal government, though the EPA has veto power over the state's regulations. Other states can choose between the federal rules or California's.

The result has been extraordinary progress in cleaning up the air, though there is a long way to go. The number of smog alerts in the Los Angeles area dropped from 121 in 1977 to seven in 1996, and since then such alerts have all but disappeared. At the same time, the state still has the second-most-polluted air in the nation.

The National Research Council, a nonpartisan panel that advises Congress, spent two years studying whether the two-tiered system of air regulation works. The council's report last month praised California's regulations, saying the state is "a proving ground for new emissions-control technologies that benefit California and the rest of the nation." The benefits, it said, generally outweigh the occasional trouble that manufacturers have in following two sets of pollution standards.

The bigger problem, according to the report, is that California's proposed rules too often get bogged down awaiting EPA action. The new rule to cut down on emissions from leaf-blowers and lawnmowers is a case in point: The EPA has been sitting on it for four years. California's proposed standards for greenhouse-gas emissions from cars also require the EPA's nod and shouldn't have to wait for approval.

Even as reports reconfirm that Arctic areas are deteriorating more dramatically than even alarmists had expected, the Bush administration has been resisting any meaningful moves against global warming. That's not surprising for an administration that doesn't want to follow existing anti-pollution laws. Last month, a federal appeals court blocked the administration from loosening rules for older coal-fired power plants, saying the weaker rules violate the Clean Air Act.

It's bad enough the feds aren't taking the leading role in cleaning the air and reducing the threat of global warming. The least they can do is allow California to send a message to other states, and to the world, about what governments can do about these problems.

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