New Wrinkle, Same Fight

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One of these days, someone will end the debate on whether California has the authority to demand fewer greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles. In the meantime, there's another battle that's erupted... and this one is found deep inside a document outlining new national fuel efficiency standards.

The latest fracas over California's landmark tailpipe emissions law is about proposed new regulations from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The regulations seek to raise the minimum gas mileage of vehicles that would hit the streets in the next few years.

But deep inside that 417 page document is a finding that California and other states can't regulate tailpipe emissions, because doing so amounts to individual states setting fuel efficiency standards... something that only the feds can do.

If that declaration is allowed to stand, it would strike a big blow to California's landmark global warming law. And that explains why state officials came out today with guns ablaze.

"It's a power grab," said California Air Resources Board chairwoman Mary Nichols in an afternoon news conference at the state Capitol. "[The Bush administration's goal] is to make sure that the U.S. auto companies don't ever have to face any regulatory requirements that might make them do something that would make the cars more efficient."

The new document's apparent attempt to settle the issue certainly seems suspect when you consider that the debate over regulating tailpipe emissions is still making its way through the courts... where, so far, California seems to be holding its own.

And state officials say the argument made by the proposed fuel standards regulation -- that tailpipe emissions and fuel standards are inextricably linked -- is one they've heard before.

Nichols addressed the issue head-on at today's news conference.

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U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein is also vowing to fight the seemingly stealth action. In a letter dated today to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters, Feinstein says that the proposed regulation "is contrary to Congressional intent" on the issue of what states can, and cannot, do when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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