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California Seeks EPA Approval for Tougher Emissions Curbs

The Environmental Protection Agency held a public hearing in Sacramento, Calif., on Wednesday to review California's bid to pass a law restricting car emissions beyond the federal level. California and EPA officials discuss the bid.

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  • 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…

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