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Other states validate our tough clean air rules

California’s pioneering regulations aimed at cutting automotive emissions of global warming gases are now getting the kind of validation that ought to end the predictable and ongoing resistance of large automakers.

The rules, passed two years ago and signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, would sharply reduce carbon dioxide emissions starting with 2009 models sold in California and grow gradually more strict each year until 2016.

This can only be done by greatly increasing fuel efficiency – but only the federal Environmental Protection Agency now has legal authority to set standards for gas mileage. Seeing that as an opening, carmakers like General Motors, Toyota, Nissan, Ford, BMW and DaimlerChrysler are fighting the rules by claiming this really amounts to a fuel-economy measure and thus can’t be enforced.



What’s more, the car companies frequently claim the new rules would limit their sales of gas-hogging sport utility vehicles, pickup trucks, vans and large sedans.

If other states refused to follow California’s lead, as they usually do with anti-smog regulations, these claims might have more credibility and a better chance of success.




But that is not happening. Despite threats of lawsuits from the automakers, 10 states in the Northeast and the Pacific Northwest are about to adopt the California rules, almost verbatim.

The 10 are New York, New Jersey, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. Combined with Californians, residents of those states buy almost half the cars sold in America. Force them to be cleaner and more efficient and there would be little point in automakers continuing to make today’s dirtier models.

The first state to act was New York, whose State Environmental Board adopted the California rules unanimously last winter. Soon, the other seven states in an informal Northeastern consortium that agreed during the 1990s to act whenever California does something on air quality issues lived up to that agreement. Carmakers now are essentially fighting an 11-state war to maintain the gas-hogging status quo.

They’ve contended from the start that all they want is more consumer choices and that environmentalists are trying to dictate the types of cars driven across all of America. Environmental groups call that baloney.

The last previous clean-air mandate from the California Air Resources Board, they note, aimed to make 10 percent of the state’s cars pollution free by 2010. Deadlines for those rules have shifted several times, but there is little doubt they spurred the development of not only electric cars but the increasingly popular hybrid models, as well.

The argument that cleaning cars up will reduce choices rings ever more hollow today, with hybrid technology now employed not only in small cars but in mid-sized models like the Honda Accord, plus a Lexus SUV model, with several others in its class to follow soon.

There seems little doubt, though, that one automaker claim is partly correct: The companies have maintained from the start that the new California rules would drive up the sticker price of cars.

New York state concluded that this is true, to some extent. Estimates there are that the average price of a new car will rise by about $1,000 because of the rules – but New York also figures greater fuel efficiency will return that money and more to motorists over the lifetime of the vehicle.

When it’s over, the entire argument could provide further validation of California’s unique authority to enact tougher smog standards than those of the federal government, an exemption that’s threatened in Congress every time the Clean Air Act comes up for renewal. As it now stands, other states have the right to choose California standards over the federal ones.

In the greenhouse gas case, the fact that New York and nine other states – run by both Republican and Democratic governors – are choosing California’s pioneering rules shows that their own independent experts agree with those at this state’s smog control agency.

It’s another defeat for the carmakers, who have used much the same “can’t do it/too expensive” argument against every new clean air rule since the first primitive smog control devices were required in the early 1960s.

Which provides further reason to be skeptical of their claims as their ongoing legal challenge to the California rules progresses.

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Thomas D. Elias is a syndicated columnist whose work appears in The Union. Contact him via e-mail at tdelias@aol.com.


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