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California's Auto Emissions Laws

For three decades, California has set the benchmarks for auto emission standards. But now, all that may be changing. In a series of recent cases, California's regulations have been challenged in court, not just by the auto industry, but by the federal government. The battle is taking on even more urgency because one of California's new laws requires reductions in the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming — a contentious concept in U.S. environmental regulation. The battle over tough state environmental laws is also creating new alliances in the ongoing battle over state's rights — the outcomes of these cases may hamper states following California's lead. (Find out what environmental measures are in front of your state legislature.)

California Air Quality in the Courts: Zero-Emission Vehicles

In 1990, the California Air Resources Board adopted a regulation requiring that 2% of new car sales by 1998. 5% by 2001 and 10% of all large automobiles sold from 2003 onward be zero-emission vehicles (ZEV's) — cars powered by electricity or alternative fuels, like hydrogen. The idea was to encourage auto companies to incubate new technology rather than simply make internal combustion engines cleaner. In other words, to go from designing vehicles that would pollute less to vehicles that wouldn't pollute at all. (The California Air Resources Board provides more information on the Zero-Emission Vehicle Program.)

Recognizing that the car companies were not ready to meet the goal the state amended the regulation several times to roll-back deadlines and in 2001 to grant companies credit for low-emission vehicles and hybrid cars like the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius, which run on gasoline and electricity.

The relaxation of the rules gave the auto industry an opening to challenge the entire regulation. So General Motors and DaimlerChrysler sued the state of California and the California Air Resources Board (CARB). They filed suit in a federal court in the Eastern District of California alleging the new ZEV rules violate a federal law barring states from regulating fuel economy in any way. The plaintiffs maintained that ZEV rules amounted to a regulation of fuel economy since the new rules covered hybrids which burn traditional fuel. On October 9, 2002, the Bush Administration, in an unusual move, joined the lawsuit, filing an amicus (friend of the court) brief, claiming that the state, by regulating emissions, was trying to set a gasoline mileage standard, which only the federal government can do.

In April 2003, CARB amended ZEV, dropping the requirement that automakers produce battery-powered electric cars and told the industry instead to produce more fuel-cell electric vehicles and hybrid vehicles that use gasoline and electric motors. Those new rules are to take effect with the 2005 model year. With assurances that the rules would not be again revised, the auto industry dropped its suit in August of 2003.

California Air Quality in the Courts: The Pavley Law

California law AB 1493, of the Pavley bill, so named for its sponsor Fran Pavley, is the first law in the nation to address the greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, emitted in auto exhaust. The law requires the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to regulate greenhouse gases as part of the California Motor Vehicle Program. Under the Pavley bill, automakers will have until the 2009 model year to produce a new California breed of cars and trucks that will collectively emit 22 percent fewer greenhouse gases by 2012 and 30 percent fewer by 2016. Seven Northeastern states, including New York, have pledged to adopt the California standards. Former Governor Gray Davis signed it into law on July 22, 2002.

In September of 2004 the California Air Resources Board (CARB) adopted the rules necessary for the Pavley law to come into effect — rules subject to further legislative approval. CARB estimated that the initial phase of the regulations will increase the average price of new vehicles by as much as $367. When fully implemented in 2016, new vehicles will cost, on average, $1,064 more, the agency said. The price increases, however, will be offset somewhat by the lower operating costs, CARB said.

The aims of the law soon came into conflict with administration priorities and rulings. In late August 2003, the EPA effectively announced that it would not regulate greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles by signing a notice denying a petition to regulate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from motor vehicles under the Clean Air Act (CAA). The EPA's rationale was that "Congress has not granted EPA authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate CO2 and other greenhouse gases for climate change purposes." And continued on to state that: "EPA has determined that setting GHG emission standards for motor vehicles is not appropriate at this time."

This decision by the EPA soon met court challenges. The biggest involves 11 states, 14 environmental groups and two cities that filed suit in 2003, arguing that EPA should be regulating greenhouse gas emissions from new vehicles. California, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York are among the states involved in the suit.

On December 7, 2004 the Pavley law was challenged in a federal lawsuit filed by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, Association of International Automobile Manufacturers and California auto dealers. The suit was based on a similar premise to the earlier suit regarding ZEVs. The plaintiffs argues that as greenhouse gas emissions from cars are largely a byproduct of their fuel economy, regulating emissions like carbon dioxide would indirectly require automakers to improve fuel efficiency significantly. And, since the federal government has sole authority to regulate fuel economy, Toyota, G.M. and several other automakers contend in their lawsuit that California is encroaching on Washington's jurisdiction.

"It's pre-empted by federal law," said Eron Shosteck, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a lobbying group which filed the suit. "It's something that needs to be done at the national or international level." California lawmakers say the regulation is focused on harmful tailpipe emissions and is well within the state's authority. Automakers say they will have to stop selling some of their largest sport utility vehicles in the state. Domestic automakers rely on big truck sales and could be particularly vulnerable. Industry experts say the regulation will add about $3,000 to the up front cost of the average car or truck. State regulators say it will cost far less, about $1,000, and be more than made up for over time by spending less at gas stations.

While the suit is in progress the Pavley law is still having an effect on the auto industry and environmental laws. In April 2005, automakers and the Canadian government reached an agreement requiring reduced greenhouse gas emissions from all cars sold in the country. Canadian officials had threatened to copy the landmark California law. Canada is bound under the Kyoto Protocol to reduce its overall greenhouse gas emissions to about 6% below 1990 levels by 2012.

California's Air Quality Past

California, specifically Los Angeles, is a cultural icon of air pollution. Of course, LA's notorious smog is not the result of burning coal, but car exhaust trapped in the basin of the San Fernando Valley. As California paved the way for America's highway culture, California also has led the way in air quality reforms — a few of which are noted below. However, in 2002 the Los Angeles area also led the nation in hazardous air quality days.

  • 1943 - First recognized episodes of smog occur in Los Angeles in the summer of 1943. Visibility is only three blocks and people suffer from smarting eyes, respiratory discomfort, nausea, and vomiting.
  • 1945 - The City of Los Angeles begins its air pollution control program, establishing the Bureau of Smoke Control in its health department.
  • 1947 - California Governor Earl Warren signs into law the Air Pollution Control Act, authorizing the creation of an Air Pollution Control District in every county of the state.
  • 1959 - California enacts legislation requiring the state Department of Public Health to establish air quality standards and necessary controls for motor vehicle emissions.
  • 1966 - Auto tailpipe emission standards for hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide are adopted by the California Motor Vehicle Pollution Control Board. They are the first of their kind in the nation. California Highway Patrol begins random roadside inspections of vehicle smog control devices.
  • 1969 - First state Ambient Air Quality Standards are promulgated by California for total suspended particulates, photochemical oxidants, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and carbon monoxide
  • 1976 - California limits lead in gasoline.
  • 1988 - California Clean Air Act is signed by Governor Deukmejian. Sets forth the framework for how air quality will be managed in California for the next 20 years
  • 1990 - California approves standards for Cleaner Burning Fuels and Low and Zero Emission Vehicles.
  • 1999 - In California consumer products rules were adopted to cut smog-forming emissions and volatile organic compounds (VOC) from an estimated 2,500 common household products ranging from nail polish remover to glass cleaners.
  • 2001 - LA regains the title of having the most number of high ozone days. LA fails the national standards for 3 criterion pollutants: CO, particulates and ozone.

Further resources:

Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers is a trade association composed of 10 car and light truck manufacturers with about 600,000 employees at more than 250 facilities in 35 states. The Alliance serves as a leading advocacy group for the automobile industry on a range of public policy issues.

The AQMD is the air pollution control agency for all of Orange County and the urban portions of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. This area of 10,000 square miles is home to nearly 16 million people - about half the population of the whole state of California. It is the second most populated urban area in the United States and one of the smoggiest.

American Lung Association of California
This site puts zero-emission vehicles in the spotlight as part of their ongoing fight for cleaner air.

The California Air Resources Board.
The California Air Resources Board's site provides links to information concerning global climate change including Assembly Bill 1493 (Pavley) signed by the California Governor on July 22, 2002.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger

Fran Pavley, Assemblymember from the 41st District

State Attorney General Lockyer

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