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Blowing smoke

The EPA's rejection of California's proposed tailpipe emissions rules smells like blatant politics.

December 21, 2007

Even an administration with a stunning history of ignoring science and law for the sake of ideology outdid itself Wednesday, when the Environmental Protection Agency spiked California's groundbreaking effort to reduce global warming emissions from vehicles. From the timing of the announcement to its twisted justification, this was a decision that reeked of politics, not responsible policymaking.

California has been trying since 2005 to get a waiver from the EPA allowing it to crack down on tailpipe emissions, a crucial part of its effort to cut greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020. When it became clear that the agency couldn't keep stalling, it finally announced its decision on the same day that President Bush signed an energy bill that tightens fuel-economy standards, providing a convenient excuse for the rejection: California's standards aren't needed because Congress has already moved to reduce vehicle emissions.

None of the reasons for the rejection cited by EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson are legally defensible, or even logically consistent. Under the Clean Air Act, four conditions must be met for California to qualify for a waiver. First, its rules can't be arbitrary or capricious; fighting global warming hardly fits under that category. Second, its regulations must be stronger than federal ones. The energy bill's new fuel-economy standards, which require vehicle fleets to go from a current average of 25 miles per gallon to 35 mpg by 2020, aren't as tough as California's, which would require at least 36 mpg by 2016 (the EPA disputes this).

Third, California must show that it has compelling and exceptional conditions to justify the tougher rules. This is where Johnson has a better case; he argues that global warming won't have a unique impact on California, so the state doesn't warrant special authority. Yet California doesn't have to show that it's unique, only that it's exceptional. This is the nation's most populous state, and it is deeply reliant on mountain snowpack for its water. That snowpack is severely threatened by global warming, potentially affecting everything from the nation's food supply (California is the biggest U.S. agricultural producer) to its overall economy as massive urban populations face water shortages. Its coastline is being eroded by rising sea levels, and wildfires are expected to increase. That's pretty exceptional. Finally, California has to show that the new rules are technologically feasible, and courts have already ruled that they are.

Urging a rejection of California's waiver, automakers have been lobbying the White House for months, including in private meetings between industry honchos and Vice President Dick Cheney. The Washington Post, quoting unnamed insiders at the EPA, reported that Johnson overruled the unanimous recommendations of the agency's scientific and legal staffs and that the EPA's lawyers had determined that if California sued to reverse the decision, the agency would lose. State Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown has vowed to file suit as soon as possible, and judges should expedite the case -- California's standards are set to take effect in 2009.

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