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Gov. sues U.S. over clean-air standards

Schwarzenegger says he's frustrated waiting for federal approval for the state to impose its own tough emissions limits on automakers.

November 09, 2007|Marc Lifsher | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO -- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Thursday sued the Bush administration and said he was prepared to "sue again and sue again" until California gets permission to impose its own tough standards on automakers to curb global warming.

The governor, backed by Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, said he is frustrated to be waiting for nearly two years for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to waive federal regulations and give the state's plan a green light.

"We are now ready to implement the nation's cleanest standards for vehicle emissions, and we cannot do that, of course, until the federal government gives us a waiver," Schwarzenegger said at a Capitol news conference. "Our health and our environment are too important to delay any longer."

At issue for California is the 2009 model year and the state's desire to get prompt action from the EPA so automakers will have time to redesign their passenger cars and light vehicles, including SUVs.

Over the last four decades, the EPA has granted more than 50 requests from California to force automakers to meet tougher anti-pollution standards than imposed nationally. The state used the mechanism to pioneer such requirements as catalytic converters to reduce tailpipe emissions and on-board computers to alert drivers if their smog-control equipment malfunctions.

Thursday's move was a major assault on the federal government's response to global warming and what critics perceive to be a slow and environmentally questionable response to what many national and world leaders consider the No. 1 threat to the planet.

The U.S. Supreme Court this summer turned down the Bush administration's effort to fight the state regulation of global warming as it cleared the way for the EPA to approve California's regulations.

The justices ruled that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change should be considered pollutants under the U.S. Clean Air Act.

The high court's decision "clearly bolsters California's case and should make it more difficult for the EPA to deny the waiver," said Ann E. Carlson, a professor of environmental law at UCLA. Carlson noted that the EPA never denied a California request for new tools to deal with local smog conditions. But the agency could balk at allowing California to set the national agenda when it comes to tackling a global problem such as climate change, she said.

EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson has promised to act on California's request by year's end. But California officials said they were pressing ahead with their lawsuit out of fear that the White House could order Johnson to postpone his decision.

"There's no legal basis for Washington to stand in our way," said Schwarzenegger.

Under the Clean Air Act, California has special rights to chart its own course in crafting more stringent pollution controls, and other states can choose to follow the California model. So far, 14 states have passed laws incorporating California's greenhouse gas tailpipe standards. Together with California, they represent 40% of the U.S. population.

The coalition of states "is filling the void left by the Bush administration's refusal to protect the environment," said New York state Atty. Gen. Andrew M. Cuomo, the group's leader. The group has filed legal papers making it a party to California's suit in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. California also filed a related lawsuit against the EPA in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington.

The California regulations, which were approved by the Legislature and signed into law by then-Gov. Gray Davis in 2002, are a key component of a landmark global warming law signed last year by Schwarzenegger.

The law aims to cut California's carbon emissions by one-fourth over the next 12 years. Such a reduction is the equivalent of taking 6.5 million vehicles off California roads, Schwarzenegger said.

"Under the Clean Air Act, California is recognized as an innovator," said Brown, noting that the federal government has approved at least 50 such requests from California since the early 1970s. The lawsuit, Brown added, "is not about politics. It's about science, it's about human well-being and it's about innovation."

The Bush administration is ignoring that science, charged Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board. "They are running out the clock in hopes somebody else will deal with this problem," she said.

California can't afford to wait, the lawsuit says, because considerable evidence exists that "global warming is making California's climate worse." Increasing greenhouse gas emissions are raising average temperatures, reducing snowfall in the mountains, shifting northward the prevailing storm track and worsening air quality, the suit contends.

An altered climate has contributed to a record drought in 2006 and 2007 in Southern California and record rains two years earlier in Los Angeles, the suit says.

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