EPA slaps California with first-ever emission waiver rejection

| 12/20/2007

The Environmental Protection Agency has rejected California’s attempt to set its own greenhouse gas emission levels for cars, light trucks and SUVs – the first time the federal agency has refused a waiver among more than 50 such requests.

Since 2005, California has sought an EPA waiver to begin requiring the nation’s first greenhouse gas emission standards for new vehicles sold in California. The law has been approved by 16 other states, and is one of several ways California is trying to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020.

EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson cited President Bush’s approval of a 35 mpg federal fuel economy standard on Wednesday, Dec. 19, in explaining his agency’s rejection of the California request.

“The Bush administration is moving forward with a clear national solution – not a confusing patchwork of state rules – to reduce America’s climate footprint from vehicles,” Johnson said. “President Bush and Congress have set the bar high, and, when fully implemented, our federal fuel standard will achieve significant benefits by applying to all 50 states.”

California’s most recent waiver request differs from previous requests that centered on local and regional air quality, the EPA noted in a statement released late Wednesday, Dec. 19.

“California’s current waiver request is distinct from all prior requests,” the statement read. “Previous waiver petitions cover pollutants that predominately impacted local and regional air quality. Greenhouse gases are fundamentally global in nature, which is unlike the other air pollutants covered by prior California waiver requests. These gases contribute to the challenge of global climate change affecting every state in the union. Therefore … EPA did not find that separate California standards are needed to ‘meet compelling and extraordinary conditions.’”

California has long been a leader in emission limits, dating back to the state’s requirement of a catalytic converter in the 1960s and ban of leaded fuel. The California Air Resources Board predates the EPA, and the Clean Air Act gives California the right to have more stringent air standards due to the state’s history of smog issues.

The California Air Resources Board has created a host of emission-cutting rules aimed at trucks going into effect on Jan. 1, 2008, including a five-minute limit on idling and a ban on diesel-powered APUs on trucks with 2007 engines that don’t have a CARB-approved DPF system. A new requirement for reefers is scheduled to go into effect in December 2008, although California is still awaiting a waiver from the EPA to enforce that rule.

The EPA’s decision could be a sign that California overstepped its authority in the Clean Air Act, even if it didn’t directly affect trucks, said Joe Rajkovacz, OOIDA’s regulatory affairs specialist.

“California must demonstrate that its rules are no less protective than federal standards and can be consistently implemented and enforced,” Rajkovacz said. “The Federal EPA must also conclude that California needs such a standard to meet ‘compelling and extraordinary conditions.’ Waivers from the EPA aren’t supposed to be granted automatically.”

Word of the EPA’s denial on Wednesday was a blow to environmentalists and proponents of states rights over federal authority, which the White House typically favors, said Mike Joyce, who works in OOIDA’s Washington, DC, office as the Association’s senior government affairs representative.

“EPA’s decision ignores the law, science, and common sense,” said U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-CA, according to a statement. “This is a policy dictated by politics and ideology, not facts.”

Waxman, who serves as chairman of the House Oversight Committee, investigated political maneuverings last summer linking the White House, the Department of Transportation and auto manufacturers lobbying the EPA to thwart California’s emission plans. At that time, Waxman criticized Transportation Secretary Mary Peters for secretly attempting to lobby the EPA to deny California’s waiver.

On Thursday, Waxman issued a letter to EPA officials asking them to “preserve and produce all documents” related to the agency’s decision to block California’s waiver request.

Next year’s elections will bring a new presidential administration and new Congress that may allow California and nearly half of U.S. states to apply their own emissions laws, Joyce said.

“I think you’re going to see a ‘king of the hill’ thing – everybody running to the top of the hill trying to garner credit for being good and coming up with a better plan for the environment,” Joyce said. “If it’s a Democrat in the White House and a Democratic Congress, you’re going to see all kinds of things change with the environment and environmental regulations.”

A national standard also could help prevent the nation’s patchwork of idle regulations for big rigs, which vary by time limits, temperature changes and in some cases, weight allowances for APUs.

“We would like to see uniform regulations when it comes to the idling laws,” Joyce told Land Line on Thursday, Dec. 20.

Mary Nichols, chairman of the California Air Resources Board, told reporters in a conference call on Wednesday that California is willing to fight the EPA in court over greenhouse gas emissions.

“We intend to persevere and to prevail,” Nichols said, according to National Public Radio.

– By Charlie Morasch, staff writer