WASHINGTON — California presented its case Tuesday for permission to impose tough new limits on greenhouse gas emissions by cars and trucks, pressing a campaign that state officials hope will set the stage for aggressive action nationwide on a major contributor to global warming.
The state called on the Environmental Protection Agency to end 16 months of delays on California's application for a waiver that would allow it to go beyond federal standards on vehicle emissions -- chiefly carbon dioxide -- whose complicity in climate change is now widely accepted.
The Bush administration has long viewed the issue with skepticism.
The EPA had argued that it did not have the power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act because they were not pollution like the gases and particles that cause smog. The Supreme Court rejected that position in April, ruling that the agency had the authority to deal with greenhouse gases.
But the court did not order EPA to act, and President Bush earlier this month gave federal agencies until December 2008 to formulate positions on the issue -- opening the possibility that federal action could be delayed until after he leaves office. And automakers, who object to states setting standards, have challenged California's move in federal court.
California, propelled by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, took the lead in pushing for the right to act on its own, mandating reduced emissions by 2009. Other states were right behind. Eleven, concentrated in the Northeast, are seeking waivers from the EPA; Arizona and New Mexico are considering similar action.
Under the Clean Air Act, California is entitled to set stricter pollution standards than the federal government because of the severity of its air problems, but only if the EPA waives the provision that says federal standards supersede state requirements.
Supporting the state's position, California Atty. Gen. Edmund G. Brown Jr. told the EPA that "Congress has to allow California to blaze its own trail with a minimum of federal oversight."
State officials argued that California was capable of setting its own greenhouse standards for motor vehicles because it had successfully implemented many strict standards on other kinds of pollution.
In addition to pressing its case at the EPA administrative hearing Tuesday, the state lobbied for congressional support at a hearing by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which is led by California Sen. Barbara Boxer.
Fearful of having to meet different greenhouse gas standards in the 50 states, car makers put up the only organized opposition at the EPA hearing.
Steven Douglas, a representative of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said California cannot prove a link between global warming and carbon dioxide emissions by motor vehicles in the state. Global warming is a global problem, he said, and California could not prove that the state could solve it because there are so many other sources of greenhouse gases.
"Piecemeal regulations at the state level are not the way to go," Douglas told the three EPA officials who conducted the hearing.
Robert F. Sawyer, chairman of the California Air Resources Board, conceded outside the hearing room that California could not stop global warming by itself, but he said somebody in the United States had to take the first step. European countries have much tougher regulations in place than the U.S., he said, and even China's standards are in some respects stricter.
"We'd be delighted if somebody at the national level would institute a program like ours," he said.
The Senate committee hearing was more like political theater than the one at the EPA, as Brown charged that the Bush administration had shirked its duty to address global warming.
"It's typical of the head-in-the-sand approach that this administration has taken on issues related to climate change," he said. "This administration has too long hidden behind a wait-and-see approach as an excuse to do nothing. California isn't willing to 'wait and see' if the sea level will rise by one foot or 10, or if the Sierra snowpack will shrink by 10% or 50% or more. California will take action."
Brown told the committee that the legal case was strong and that California would prevail in the courts if it came to that. He lamented, however, that the court option would take another two years.
But Jonathan H. Adler, director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation at Case Western Reserve University School of Law, told the committee the EPA would have to reject the waiver request if it concluded that California's problem was not "compelling and extraordinary."
On smog, California could make that case. The problem with global warming, Adler said, is that "California's problem is not any different than Montana's ... or Israel's."
Adler also argued that California was pressuring a federal agency accustomed to a more deliberative pace. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) countered: "There is no reason for them to be hiding behind the skirts of bureaucratic delay." Whitehouse noted that Rhode Island was one of the original 13 states "and now one of the EPA 12, log-jammed in behind EPA's slow process."