California air quality initiative scores environmental victory |

California air quality initiative scores environmental victory

The Associated Press

SACRAMENTO ” President Barack Obama handed California a big environmental victory Monday by endorsing a key part of the state’s greenhouse gas reduction plans.

He also gave a public shout-out to the Golden State, offering a clear sign that liberal-leaning California can expect a friendly relationship with his administration after eight years of clashes with former President George Bush.

“California has shown bold and bipartisan leadership through its effort to forge 21st century standards, and over a dozen states have followed its lead,” Obama said at a news conference where he announced that his administration would revisit the Bush administration’s controversial decision to deny California permission to control tailpipe emissions from cars and trucks.

“Instead of serving as a partner, Washington stood in their way,” Obama said. “The federal government must work with, not against, states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Obama’s announcement on his seventh day in office delighted California officials who have criticized his predecessor for ignoring the state’s long tradition of setting its own air standards.

“For too long, Washington has been asleep at the wheel when it comes to the environment,” Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said a news conference at the state capitol. “Now California finally has a partner and an ally in Washington, in the White House.”

Because California began regulating vehicle pollution before the federal government did, the state has special status under the Clean Air Act to implement tougher emission standards than those promulgated by the federal government.

But the state must first get a waiver from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

California was granted about 50 such waivers ” and never denied ” before seeking a waiver in 2005 to implement a landmark state law that would force automakers to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent in new cars and light trucks by 2016.

The auto regulations were to have been a major part of California’s first-in-the-nation global warming law that aims to reduce greenhouse gases economy-wide by 25 percent ” to 1990 levels ” by 2020. Air regulators are counting on the auto emission reductions to meet about 18 percent of the state’s proposed reductions.

If California is granted an emissions waiver, other states can then choose to adopt California’s standards or go with the federal ones. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia were ready to implement the California standards when, after months of delay and controversy, then-EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson announced in December 2007 that he was denying the waiver.

That sparked outrage, investigations and lawsuits from California officials. Congressional investigations led by Boxer and Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, found that Johnson had overruled the unanimous recommendations of career scientists at the agency.

“An immediate EPA review of the waiver decision shows respect for California” and the other states that want to follow its lead in slashing greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, Sen. Barbara Boxer said Monday.

Although Obama’s directive to his new EPA administrator Lisa Jackson ” who began her first week on the job Monday ” doesn’t amount to giving the state the waiver, California officials were confident that would be the eventual outcome.

“It was a controversial decision by Steven Johnson. California has never been denied an application. This was the first. In my opinion it was transparently political,” said state Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, who authored the 2002 law that was the basis for California’s waiver request to the federal government.

“What a difference a week makes,” Pavley said.

California’s proposed standards call for automakers to make cars and trucks that emit fewer greenhouses by improving the efficiency of the air conditioning, using different paint and materials to build the cars or improving fuel efficiency.

The improvements must equate to a fleetwide 35.7 miles per gallon in 2016 (cars are higher but larger trucks pull the figure down) and 42.5 miles per gallon in 2020. Those numbers are more aggressive than national fuel economy standards adopted by the federal government and relied upon by Johnson when he denied the California waiver and said a nationwide approach would be better.

Carmakers also opposed granting the waiver, contending they would face billions of dollars in new costs to meet the rules. In a statement released Monday, the National Association of Manufacturers said allowing California to implement its rules “would lead to a patchwork of greenhouse gas reduction laws when climate change is a global issue and should be addressed on a national level.”

Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, said car manufacturers are already meeting the 2010 standards.

“They just have to sell us cars that they are already making,” Nichols said.

Schwarzenegger, who in a letter last week had asked Obama to revisit the matter, said he suggested the federal government adopt California’s standards nationwide.

He made that pitch in a phone call Monday to Carol Browner, who is assuming a new White House post to coordinate energy and climate-related issues.

“It would be great to actually do this nationwide so car that manufacturers don’t just have two standards but that they only have one,” Schwarzenegger said.

California, other states and environmental groups had sued over the Bush’s administration’s waiver denial.

Scott Gerber, spokesman for California Attorney General Jerry Brown, said Monday that once EPA takes action to reconsider the waiver denial, the state would ask the court to set the lawsuit aside.

According to the California Air Resources Board, California does not need to resubmit the waiver request, but instead will seek reconsideration based on the record already before EPA. The state likely will have to wait until May or June before for a final decision, Nichols said.

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