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Grant California's clean-air waiver

Even in a tough economy, President Obama should reverse the Bush-era EPA's decision and allow the state to curb vehicles' greenhouse gas emissions.

March 06, 2009

A few years ago, a decision by the Environmental Protection Agency to allow California to regulate vehicle tailpipe emissions should have been a cinch. The state was proposing common-sense rules that would have simultaneously curbed greenhouse gases, boosted public health by cutting pollution, reduced the nation's reliance on foreign oil and put downward pressure on gas prices, all while improving the financial health of Detroit automakers, which persisted in making gas-guzzling cars despite changes in consumer preference.

That was then. The EPA under President Bush stalled for years, then in 2007 rejected California's request for a waiver from federal clean-air rules that would have allowed it and 13 other states to adopt the standards. Now there are wiser heads in charge of the agency, which held a hearing Thursday on the waiver as it considers reversing the last administration's decision. Meanwhile, economic conditions have changed for the worse, and the choice before the EPA is no longer an easy one. Yet granting the waiver is still the right thing to do.

California approved its tailpipe regulations in 2002, regulating emissions for cars sold in the state starting in model year 2009 and tightening them yearly until 2016, by which time greenhouse gases would have to be cut by 30%. That gave the automakers seven years to retool -- but instead of doing so, they relied on the courts and their allies in the Bush administration to kill the rules. Now that they finally may be approved, there is very little time to get ready to meet them. And the situation is worsened by the economic crisis, which has brought Chrysler and General Motors to the verge of bankruptcy.

The U.S. auto industry is unquestionably in serious trouble, but California's greenhouse gas rules won't be the straw that breaks Detroit. For one thing, automakers have finally recognized that they must clean up their vehicles for the sake of their own survival. After receiving $13.4 billion in taxpayer bailout money, GM submitted a report to the Treasury Department explaining how it would return to financial health, and the plan calls for the company's automotive fleet to achieve an average of 38.6 miles per gallon by 2015. Experts disagree on how much that would reduce emissions, but California air regulators say it would come very close to meeting the state's standards.

California and the nation need cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars. Given that gas prices are certain to rise again when the economy improves, building such cars is in Detroit's best interest too. Granting California's clean-air waiver not only won't drag the Big Three under, it could aid their recovery.

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