One auto industry insider in Washington thinks it is certain that the U.S. EPA, in the wake of its denial of California’s request to regulate greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions from tailpipes at the state level, will issue a rulemaking sometime soon setting out regulatory options for doing so on a national level.
However, there is no certainty that the agency will adopt any of those options. In fact, that is probably unlikely. After all, Stephen Johnson, the EPA administrator, said in his December 19 letter to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that the Bush administration is already “moving forward with a clear national solution.” He was referring to the energy bill Congress passed late last year increasing the CAFE standard to 35 mpg by 2020. That standard will result in a significant reduction of greenhouse gases from autos on its own. In addition, the bill sets a 36-billion-gal target for the amount of renewable fuel used by autos in the U.S.
Nonetheless, the EPA is obligated by the Supreme Court decision in April 2007 (in Massachusetts v. EPA) to determine whether tailpipe emissions of the four greenhouse gases “endanger public health or public welfare.” That is the trip wire in the Clean Air Act. If the answer is “yes,” the EPA must regulate.
Jonathan Shradar, a spokesman for the EPA, said that the agency was initially shooting for an end-of-year 2007 decision on the “endangerment” question. But because the new CAFE standard in the energy bill will result in reductions in greenhouse gases from autos, those reductions must now be figured in to the EPA’s projections, which are being revised and may affect the regulatory options the EPA proposes.
“I expect something soon,” Shradar said.
One thing is certain. Some Democrats in Congress and some environmental groups will use the upcoming EPA rulemaking to criticize Johnson’s decision to turn down the California waiver request, and maybe even seek legislation overturning that decision. The politicians already have started their engines. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, held a hearing in Los Angeles on January 10 to hear about California’s decision to sue the EPA because of Johnson’s decision. “One way or another, this unjustified, unprecedented, and illegal decision must be overturned,” she said. Johnson was scheduled to testify before Boxer’s committee on January 24.
California had wanted the waiver from federal Clean Air rules to implement a 2004 law requiring the auto industry to, by 2016, cut greenhouse gas emissions in California by one-third starting in MY2009, which would have required a CAFE of about 36.8 mpg. California’s standard would reduce the amount of greenhouse gases (CO2 is the main culprit, but others are methane, nitrous oxide, and hydrofluorocarbons) that vehicles produce by 45.4 t (50.0 ton) a year in California and the 12 other states that have adopted the California rule and were also waiting on the waiver.
In foreclosing a waiver, Johnson said that GHG emissions from vehicles are generated throughout the U.S., and affect all states, so it does not make sense to allow states to take a piecemeal approach. Given that California may ultimately win its lawsuit against the EPA, resulting in probably 20 states immediately adopting the 2004 Golden State law, the auto industry might even prefer that EPA move forward on some national standard. Greg Bunker, the Washington spokesman for General Motors, said, “We want one national standard.”
However, Democratic political pressure aside, neither the EPA nor Congress is likely to change the status quo in 2008. This is likely to be a year of idling as the EPA rulemaking gives both sides a chance to lay out their arguments and build support in anticipation of a new president in 2009.