He Asks for "Delay." She Urges "Restraint."

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The public policy battle of the week has featured a looming deadline for California gas station owners... and demands that the deadline be extended.

But more interesting politically is what kind of official response would be given to one of those asking for an extension -- Governor Schwarzenegger.

And today, the governor's choice to lead the agency in question sort of went along with his request. Yes, sort of.

The governor, in a letter five days ago to Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board, asked the agency to delay enforcement of a new mandate requiring the installation of new gas pump nozzles.

Those nozzles are being installed to catch more of the gas vapors that can cause air pollution. (For more on the environmental issues at stake, our crackerjack team at KQED's Quest team produced a radio story you can hear on their webpage.)

The deadline for installation was today, and even air board officials admit that many gas station owners aren't going to make it. As of this afternoon, officials say that only 41% of the state's gas stations have installed the enhanced vapor recovery (EVR) nozzles.

That's led to calls for help. And last week, Schwarzenegger asked ARB chair Nichols to delay the program.

"California's current economic conditions," wrote the governor, "require extreme caution in implementing new regulations that call for this type of investment by small business owners right now."

Today, Nichols issued a statement, which a spokesman says should be considered to be her formal response to the governor's letter:

"I share the concerns expressed by the Governor and the Legislature in enforcement of California’s Enhanced Vapor Recovery Rule in light of the current economic situation... As such, I directed Executive Officer [James] Goldstene to urge the [local air quality] districts to exercise their enforcement authority with discretion and restraint."

In other words, no delay... but rather, a case-by-case evaluation. Air Board spokesman Dmitri Stanich says that a full 80% of gas station owners across the state have been issued a permit for the new nozzles. Those that are trying to comply, he says, should be shown leniency by local regulators; only those that are thumbing their nose at the regulation should be levied stiff fines for non-compliance.

Meantime, a group of Republican members of the Assembly (joined by a few Democrats) today introduced legislation to delay the EVR installation for one year. "We simply cannot allow the potential for massive job losses or higher gas prices," said Assemblymember Martin Garrick (R-Carlsbad).

The request from the guv, and the response from the woman he appointed to lead the ARB are worth noting. After all, Nichols got the job almost two years ago after a disagreement between Schwarzenegger and the last top air regulator resulted in a highly publicized firing.

Since then, Nichols and Schwarzenegger have both been praised around the world for their environmental stewardship and, by extension, for their work together. No signs for now that this disagreement is on the same level, though some have suggested it should be.

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About John Myers

John Myers is Sacramento Bureau Chief for KQED Public Radio and "The California Report," heard daily on 23 public radio stations across the Golden State.

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