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A clash over auto emission standards

California wants its own limits, saying carmakers can hit the mark. Others support a national standard.

March 06, 2009|Jim Tankersley and Ken Bensinger

ARLINGTON, VA., AND LOS ANGELES — California officials told the Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday that major automakers are already on track to meet the state's strict proposed limits on greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles.

But they clashed again with auto industry supporters at a daylong hearing over whether the EPA should grant California's request to allow it and 13 other states to set their own emission standards.

Automakers and dealers raised concerns over several points of California's plan and said they would welcome a nationwide standard for emission limits. California officials said they wouldn't accept any national standard that fell short of their state's.

Listening to the arguments was the Obama administration, which has expressed strong interest in crafting a national emission standard that satisfies the recession-rocked domestic auto industry and California.

The Clean Air Act allows California to seek permission to set its own air pollution standards, which the state did by passing the nation's first law regulating greenhouse gas emissions from vehicle tailpipes earlier this decade.

The state has been unable to implement the regulation because of a series of legal challenges from the auto industry and a decision by the Bush administration in late 2007 denying the state's request for a required EPA waiver.

A week into his term, President Obama ordered the EPA to reconsider that move. The EPA scheduled a hearing Thursday at its office in Arlington, Va., to solicit public comments on California's request.

California officials emphasized the dangers a warming climate poses to the state's air quality, water supply and agriculture.

"As the temperature gets hotter, many places in California become increasingly difficult places to live," said state Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), the original author of California's tailpipe emission standards.

State officials also said they believed General Motors Corp. would meet their standards for this model year and 2010. Their opinion was based on information from the troubled automaker's recovery plan filed with the Obama administration this year.

"The technology is ready" to make more efficient cars and trucks, said Tom Cackette, the deputy executive officer of the California Air Resources Board. "The manufacturers are exceeding our expectations."

But Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who has been a supporter of automakers, said California's regulations would handicap the industry.

"Global warming is not unique to California," he said. "And to suggest that it is actually undermines the argument that it is a global threat that knows no boundaries."

Levin and industry representatives argued for emission controls on a national level, rather than on the state level. They noted the sagging economy's effect on auto sales and said granting the California request would force automakers to comply with different standards in different states.

GM has argued against the state-by-state approach in the past. But as the troubled automaker waits for the White House to decide whether to give it $16.6 billion in additional bailout funding, the company has taken a quieter role in the debate.

The company did not speak directly at the hearing and has been reserved in its criticism of California's proposed rule.

Deciding how to regulate emissions is "a process that we plan to be engaged in," said GM spokesman Greg Martin. "We continue to work vigorously on the new technologies and cars that will offer meaningful solutions to the nation's energy crisis."

California officials said although they would not accept a national standard lower than their state's, they too would ultimately like U.S. auto emission regulations under one policy, as is the case in the European Union and Japan.

"Our hope is that there would be a federal [standard] that we could sign onto and support," said Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the Air Resources Board. "That would be the best for the world."

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jtankersley@tribune.com

ken.bensinger@latimes.com

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