Merits of California greenhouse-gas rule debated

  • 12-Mar-2009 11:55 EDT

California State Sen. Fran Pavley is the author of California's greenhouse-gas emissions law.

The March 5 EPA hearing on California’s request to be able to set the first greenhouse-gas (GHG) tailpipe emissions standards in the U.S. showcased the domestic industry’s engineering advances over the past half decade. Even Fran Pavley, a Democratic State Senator in California, in an interview with AEI before the hearings, metaphorically tipped her hat to Detroit saying the industry “has moved in the right direction” in terms of technologies for better fuel economy. Pavley wrote the law passed by the California legislature in 2001 requiring a reduction in GHG emissions of 30% by 2016. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) approved a regulation in 2004 dictating the steps carmakers would have to take starting in MY2009.

Pavley was among the California environmental heavyweights who came to Crystal City, VA, to testify at the standing-room-only EPA public hearing. California has to meet certain conditions before the EPA can grant it a GHG emissions waiver based on the Clean Air Act. Stephen Johnson, the EPA Administrator at the end of the Bush administration, denied the waiver request in January 2008.

On January 21, 2009, CARB Chairwoman Mary Nichols wrote to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson asking her to reconsider Johnson’s denial. Jackson, with President Obama’s approval, agreed and scheduled the March 5 hearing.

In an interview prior to the hearing, Tom Cackette, Chief Deputy Executive Officer for CARB, said auto manufacturers will be able to meet the California standard without any problem. If the current nationwide fleet of cars and light trucks emitted GHG at 2016 California levels, the fleet-wide average fuel economy would be 33.8 mpg (it would be higher, 35.7 mpg, in California because the ratio of cars to trucks there is closer to 70-30 versus 60-40 nationwide).

“The automakers can absolutely meet the California standard,” Cackette said in his interview with AEI.

Charlie Territo, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, essentially agreed with Cackette. He said the CAFE standards the U.S. Department of Transportation is likely to adopt differ only “negligibly” from the California GHG standard in terms of effect on fuel economy.

Territo explained that California’s standard is troublesome because of its potential impact on auto sales in different states. “The structure and framework as it applies to compliance on a state-by-state level creates some real difficulties,” he said. Dealers in states that adopt the GHG standard will have to sell fewer heavy vehicles and more lighter ones; thus, a consumer in a regulated state searching for a heavier vehicle will have more incentive to cross border into an unregulated neighboring state where automakers face no limit on how many heavy vehicles they can sell. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have passed laws adopting the California GHG standard, which they will impose if and when the EPA grants California a waiver.

Territo says the problem could be solved by the U.S. adopting one national standard for GHG emissions and fuel economy. That approach was endorsed by Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan. He argued that GHG emissions are not unique to California. Therefore, the state cannot claim that those emissions pose an “extraordinary and compelling” case for a Clean Air Act waiver. “A ton of carbon emitted in California is the same as a ton of carbon emitted in any other state,” Levin said.

President Obama seems to endorse the “one national standard” concept. But neither Obama nor anyone else has talked about what that standard might look like.

Cackette acknowledged that technologies aimed at reducing GHG emissions don’t always help as much in improving fuel economy. For example, substituting cleaner air-conditioning refrigerant helps considerably to reduce GHG emissions but does nothing to improve fuel economy. Use of a diesel engine can lead to a 35% increase in fuel economy in some models, Cackette said, but only a 20% gain in GHG emissions reduction.

California would have no problem with one national automotive standard addressing both GHG and fuel economy. “If it would satisfy our needs, we don’t need two standards,” Cackette said. But when asked whether CARB might ease its GHG emissions standard as part of a compromise, he had a one-word answer: "No."

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