TOPICS > Politics

California Seeks EPA Approval for Tougher Emissions Curbs

May 30, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now, a battle between California and the federal government over auto emissions. Judy Woodruff has that story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: California and nearly a dozen other states are turning up the heat on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, demanding action to curb auto emissions. Under the Clean Air Act, California can adopt standards that are more stringent than federal air pollution rules, but it still needs the federal government’s approval.

In 2002, the California legislature passed a law requiring automakers to: cut greenhouse gases by 25 percent in cars and light trucks; and by 18 percent in larger trucks and sport-utility vehicles; and automakers would have to begin installing technologies, starting with their 2009 models, but have until 2016 to be in full compliance with the new standards.

Eleven other states have said they, too, want to adopt the California tailpipe emissions standard. But the EPA has so far refused to issue a decision on California’s request to waive the federal standards.

The Bush administration first contended that it did not have authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions linked to global warming, but last month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the EPA did have that authority. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has threatened to sue the federal agency if it does not grant the waiver. And last week, state Attorney General Jerry Brown said he would file suit even sooner, if the EPA does not issue a decision.

The EPA has been holding hearings on California’s request, last week in Washington and today in Sacramento.

We hear from both sides about this issue. Jerry Brown is the attorney general for California, a former governor of the state and a long-time Democrat. He testified at today’s public hearing in Sacramento, and he joins us from there.

And Bill Wehrum is the acting assistant administrator for air and radiation at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In his previous position as an attorney for the EPA, he helped draft rules on power plants that were heavily criticized by environmental groups.

Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us.

BILL WEHRUM, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mr. Brown, let me begin with you. Why does California need to implement emissions standards that are stricter than the national standards?

JERRY BROWN (D), Attorney General, California: Because we have compelling and extraordinary conditions. These conditions have been recognized, first, starting with Richard Nixon, when he was president, and Ronald Reagan, when he was governor.

And they agreed, and the law was so changed that California could be granted a waiver when it wanted to pioneer new and stricter standards. And actually California has been given the role as really a pace-setter for the rest of the nation. We’ve done that with the catalytic converter, with particulate diesel emissions, and a number of other standards that we anticipated and introduced before the federal government followed suit.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what are those conditions that you say are compelling and extraordinary?

JERRY BROWN: Well, the number of cars more than anywhere else in the country, the concentration of cars, the topological conditions, the mountains, the air currents, and all of that exacerbate air pollution, and that’s why California has such a disproportionate problem when it comes to reducing air pollution in its state.

And that was the original reason, together with the innovative quality of the state, that California was given the special role to carve out its own standards. Then, a few years later, the law was changed to allow any other state to adopt either the federal standard or the California standard. And that continues to be the law today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mr. Wehrum, if the state wants to make its air cleaner than other states, why wouldn’t the EPA give them permission to do that?

BILL WEHRUM: Well, Governor Brown is exactly right. The Clean Air Act generally requires the federal government to regulate emissions from fuels in vehicles, but there is a provision in the act that says California, if the state decides it wants to do something more stringent than what the federal government requires, they’re authorized to do that, but EPA is required to grant a waiver for the state when they choose to do that before the rule can be effective. And that’s exactly what we’re talking about today.

So dozens of times over the past few years, the state of California has asked for this type of waiver, and we have a process that’s well-established. We’re going through the deliberative process to make a decision on the…

Regulating gases for climate change

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you've done it before, as you say, many times. Why is this time different?

BILL WEHRUM: This is different because it raises a very unique issue, and an issue we've never dealt with in the Clean Air Act before. And that's the question of whether we, EPA, and the state of California are authorized under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions for their impact on climate change.

That's a very new issue. As was pointed out in the opening remarks, it was our position as an administration -- and we expressed this position through a separate proceeding on another matter -- that we didn't think we had authority under the law to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

And that question, of course, was litigated when we made the decision, and the question went all the way up to the Supreme Court. And as was indicated in the opening remarks, the Supreme Court disagreed with our position and found that, in fact, we do have authority in the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, if we make some basic findings that are necessary under the law before we can act...

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that's what you're in the process of doing now?

BILL WEHRUM: That's right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Mr. Brown, if EPA is in the process of doing what they were told to do or what they were told they could do by the Supreme Court, why not wait and let this process work its way through?

JERRY BROWN: Well, we can't wait, because if we don't request, nothing happens. And as a matter of fact, EPA has been dragging their feet. They're now forced by the U.S. Supreme Court.

I mean, the law is, I think, relatively clear: Any kind of a substance that is emitted from vehicles that causes harm is a pollutant that can be regulated. That's exactly what the Supreme Court ruled. And the EPA really has no choice, unless they're going to scientifically demonstrate there's no such thing as human-induced global warming. I don't believe they can do that; 90 percent of the scientists don't think so, either.

So it's only a matter of time. And what we're really facing is the policy of President Bush who next week is going to Germany to stand out alone in opposing a consensus draft to set targets and timetables to reduce greenhouse gases.

So Bush has basically been doing nothing; in fact, no, he's been doing worse than that. He's fighting any effort to set a target that will result in reducing greenhouse gases.

And I would just conclude by this: This global warming is perhaps the greatest threat to our national security and the well-being of nations throughout the world. It's setting in motion the global greenhouse gases, irreversible changes, and we've got to get about the business of correcting it and curbing it.

Awaiting the Supreme Court ruling

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let's bring this back to what's at hand here before the EPA. Mr. Wehrum, you heard Jerry Brown, the attorney general, say the EPA really has no choice, the scientific evidence is solid. If that's the case, on what ground is the EPA waiting -- what new information is the EPA waiting for then?

BILL WEHRUM: Well, again, there's a very basic issue raised by the California waiver petition that we never had to address before, and that's the question of, do we have the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions in the Clean Air Act?

I respectfully disagree with the governor. We, in fact, have moved quite expeditiously, first of all, in asking and answering that question through another proceeding. And, second of all, it was very important for us to see the litigation process through, and in this case all the way through to the Supreme Court.

It would have been irresponsible for us to act on the California waiver petition before we got a signal from the court as to what our basic authorities are. We've gotten that signal. The court ruled. Just a short number of days after that, I myself signed a notice beginning the decision-making process on the California waiver request. So, in fact, we are moving quite expeditiously on the request, now that we have the signal from the court we've been waiting, and..

JERRY BROWN: Now that you have the -- yes.


JERRY BROWN: Well, now that you have the signal, that's true, but this global warming that's been building up, and the scientific literature has been growing clearer and clearer over the last 18 years. So that's what I mean by delay, if you say you can't move until the Supreme Court gave you the green light. I would acknowledge you are moving quickly now.

Authority under Clean Air Act

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are you saying that there's still doubt inside your agency, inside EPA, as to whether emissions, auto emissions, contribute to climate change, to global warming?

BILL WEHRUM: We're talking about two very different things in this conversation. One is, what are the basic legal authorities and responsibilities under the Clean Air Act that we and the state of California can use to regulate, if we choose to regulate? And again, on that question, the Supreme Court just ruled -- we believed, and we believe we had a compelling case that we didn't have authority under the Clean Air Act.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, now that they've ruled that...

BILL WEHRUM: That's correct. Now that they've ruled, we're moving expeditiously, but we're trying to move responsibly on the California waiver request. It's a very complicated request. They've filed several thousand pages of technical support to justify their regulation and justify the request for a waiver. And we take that very seriously.

It's our responsibility to review that material, to make sure we fully understand it so we can respond on the record. And, more importantly, it's our responsibility at this point to seek public input.

That's why we had a public hearing in Sacramento today. That's why we had a public hearing in Washington last week. And there will also be an opportunity for the public to submit written comments. And we fully expect to get a substantial volume of very specific and technical information that we're going to have to understand and that we will use to inform the final decision-making process.

Auto industry and emissions

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Mr. Brown, you hear what he's saying, that they are moving as expeditiously as they can, given the fact they just got the go-ahead from the Supreme Court.

JERRY BROWN: Yes, I understand that. But, look, the auto industry has opposed every emission standard that anybody proposed. They've always been fighting California. They're suing us. They're in league with President Bush, who sabotaged the Kyoto agreement. He's now going to sabotage the Group of 8, Germany, France, Italy, Russia, Japan, and the other nations meeting next week.

I mean, we are at loggerheads here, not the agency. They're doing their professional work, and I fully expect that they'll apply the law. But I think it is important to see the larger context.

California is following the procedures that it's always followed, since the time of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and that is to pioneer, to set the pace. And we've done so responsibly, with technical proficiency and integrity. And we just hope that the EPA will follow the law and not the policy of George Bush.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quickly, if there is a suit from the state of California, how does that affect what you're doing?

BILL WEHRUM: Well, the law requires us to go through a public process and a deliberative process. We're going to act expeditiously, but we're going to act responsibly, so that we get it right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Bill Wehrum, acting assistant administrator for the EPA, and Jerry Brown, attorney general for the state of California. And I do want to point out that we invited the auto industry to participate in this discussion, and they declined.

Gentlemen, thank you both.

BILL WEHRUM: Thank you.

JERRY BROWN: Thank you.