TOPICS > Science

Clearing the Air

March 28, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


MAN AT AUTO SHOW: Six hundred-and-five horsepower, 500 feet of torque, same chassis, same suspension, all for you, right around $100,000.

SPENCER MICHELS: At the recent Los Angeles auto show, much of the attention was on big, powerful, gas-guzzling vehicles, some of them prototypes, some popular SUVs and trucks.

But in Sacramento, the state capital, there is new attention on the environmental effects of California’s 31 million registered vehicles, and the focus there is on global warming.

Democratic assemblywoman Fran Pavley wants California to reduce the gases from cars that she says contribute to that warming.

FRAN PAVLEY: Fifty-eight percent of our greenhouse gas emissions come from the transportation sector. California really needs to take the lead, like we’ve done in the past, relating to car emissions.

SPENCER MICHELS: This fall California became the first state in the country to enact regulations to cut carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles, emissions that some scientists say are responsible for global warming.

But those regulations, which come down to improving gasoline mileage, are now in legal jeopardy. Automakers, including the Detroit big three and some foreign companies, are suing the state to prevent those new rules from taking effect, contending that California is illegally using emissions rules to regulate gasoline mileage, a federal prerogative.

Democratic Congressman John Dingell says the American auto industry, which is centered in his state of Michigan, would suffer under the $3,000 extra per car Detroit claims California’s rules will cost.

REP. JOHN DINGELL: The automobile industry estimates that it will close about eight plants, which assemble automobiles, four transmission plants and four engine plants, resulting in the loss of thousands of American jobs.

SPENCER MICHELS: California, with dirty air choking its cities and valleys, has long regulated tailpipe emissions of hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, and particles that cause smog, even before passage of the Federal Clean Air Act of 1970. UCLA environmental law Professor Ann Carlson says the state’s standards are tougher than federal rules.

ANN CARLSON: California is the only state in the country that can regulate emissions under the Federal Clean Air Act. Even though other states can’t regulate auto vehicle emissions, they can follow California’s lead. They can choose California’s regulations as opposed to the federal regulations.

SPENCER MICHELS: But a bill by Assemblywoman Pavley went even further, mandating regulation of greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide, or CO2, which were not covered by the old law and not even considered a pollutant by the EPA under the Bush administration.

SPOKESMAN: This measure is based on sound science.

SPENCER MICHELS: Pavley’s bill, signed amid much fanfare by then-Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, now has the support of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. It requires a nearly 30 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions on all passenger vehicles, including light trucks and SUVs, sold in the state starting in 2016.

The scientific premise is that gasoline-burning vehicles emit CO2, which rises above the earth and forms a layer of gas that traps the heat of the sun. This greenhouse effect, some scientists argue, warms the earth, affecting plant and animal life.

FRAN PAVLEY: California, perhaps more than any other state, is really susceptible to some of the impacts of climate change. We have 1,100 miles of coastline, so sea level rising. Warming climates mean warmer temperatures, particularly in the summer, when our pollution problems are exaggerated and really problematic.

SPENCER MICHELS: California’s new regulations angered automakers and car dealers, who argued that changes in California alone will have little or no impact on global warming. Peter Welch is president of the California Auto Dealers Association.

PETER WELCH: Carbon dioxide disperses evenly in the troposphere. It doesn’t localize over California, over Sacramento, over Los Angeles, over San Francisco. Californians are not going to get any health benefits, emissions benefits, et cetera, from these regulations.

SPENCER MICHELS: Besides, Welch says, redesigning and equipping vehicles to control CO2 emissions is expensive. While the industry puts the cost at $3,000 per car, the state says it’s about $1,000.

PETER WELCH: Should California consumers be saddled with $1,000 to $3,000 more in vehicle expense when it, again, offers no benefit to them individually, other than we can say that we are world leaders here in California.

SPENCER MICHELS: California’s Environmental Protection Agency and its Air Resources Board heard objections like that before they passed the rules. EPA Director Alan Lloyd says one state can make a difference when it comes to CO2.

ALAN LLOYD: It is a global pollutant, but we also need to be conscious that we are one world here and that, in fact, the technology we develop can be utilized in other parts of the world.

SPENCER MICHELS: Sixty-five thousand dollars for this car?

Back at the LA auto show, various technologies to reduce CO2 were on display if you knew where to look, says Jason Mark, an engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Mark and others say the main way to cut down greenhouse gas emissions is to burn less fuel, which translates to getting more miles per gallon. And, he says, the auto makers already have ways to do that.

JASON MARK: This is the Lincoln Navigator, and it is unique in the sense that it’s a big SUV that uses a six-speed automatic transmission, and that six-speed automatic transmission saves emissions because it adds an extra speed so that the engine can better match the performance of the vehicle.

SPENCER MICHELS: Other car makers use different gas-saving techniques.

JASON MARK: Well, this is the Jeep Grand Cherokee that includes something called — that Chrysler calls the multi-displacement system, that — it’s a V-8 engine, turns off half of its cylinders when it doesn’t need them, so it essentially turns into a four-cylinder vehicle when you’re, say, coasting along the road.

SPENCER MICHELS: The regulations specify use of existing technology, not hybrids, not exotic electric cars or fuel cells.

JASON MARK: Virtually all of the technology car companies need to meet California clean car standards are right here in this room. They’re on different vehicles; they need to be put all together into one package and sold in every single vehicle in California.

SPENCER MICHELS: The automakers who are suing the state declined an interview, but suggested we talk instead with Larry Weitzman, columnist for a small California newspaper. Weitzman, who testified against the emissions bill, says improving car mileage could backfire.

LARRY WEITZMAN: If cars do get better fuel economy, which they have done, people drive more. So there is no benefit. It creates a mishmash of regulation. So, you know, it’s ludicrous what they’re trying to do. It’s absolutely ludicrous.

SPOKESMAN: You’ll have to use diesel fuel. That’s a problem.

SPOKESMAN: That’s kind of a no-no in California.

SPENCER MICHELS: At the University of California at Davis, transportation engineers like Dan Sperling studied past emissions regulations and found they have been effective and their cost comes down over time.

But while Sperling says emissions improvements are inevitable, as in this experimental hybrid SUV that combines an electric motor with a gasoline engine…

DAN SPERLING: Navigating through the students here.

SPENCER MICHELS: He admits that U.S. auto makers may be hurt by new regulations.

DAN SPERLING: They’re making their most money from the vehicles that are most gas-guzzling, so now anything that’s done to push them to improve fuel economy or reduce greenhouse gases is probably going to relatively advantage the Japanese companies.

And that’s the explanation for the political paralysis in Washington D.C., and it’s why there’s an opportunity in California, where the Detroit companies have less influence and where there’s a stronger environmental ethic to actually push that agenda forward.

SPENCER MICHELS: Sperling says Congress has made virtually no changes in fuel economy standards in years — evidence the fight is political, as well as legal and economic.

Before California’s regulations on greenhouse gas emissions go into effect, the federal EPA has to give California permission. The Bush administration and Gov. Schwarzenegger are lined up on opposite sides. Despite the political and legal challenges, seven northeastern states and Canada are considering adopting similar rules.