Provincial Climate Summitry: Day One

Governor Schwarzenegger kicked off his second Global Climate Summit Wednesday in Los Angeles–and “global” is certainly the emphasis.  The three-day conference features panelists from more than 70 states, provinces and countries who are discussing “subnational” strategies to cut carbon emissions.  (That’s the policy wonk term for regional, state and provincial governments).

Events like these are at risk of being feel-good political meet-and-greets, but I spoke with Louis Blumberg of The Nature Conservancy, who believes that the partnerships created at the last climate summit have borne fruit in the past year. Blumberg is part of a deforestation working group made up of five Brazilian states, two provinces in Indonesia and three states in the U.S. They’re working on carbon accounting techniques for forestry projects–or in carbon parlance, REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation).

Expect more partnership announcements from the rest of the summit.  The first signed this week came from California and Mexico, who announced a partnership to protect Monarch Butterfly habitat in Mexico through reforestation.  California forests are also getting some attention.  The Governor also announced a deal with the largest private forest owner in California, Sierra Pacific Industries, to produce carbon credits from its forestry projects.

Still, for all the state-level dialogue, national climate news stole the show.  EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson appeared just after the Governor to announce  a proposed rule to use the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from large power plants and refineries. And in Washington, Senators Barbara Boxer and John Kerry released a national climate bill in the Senate (see Craig Miller’s post for more on that).

The Governor took it all in stride, reminding the audience that California piloted many of the policies the national government is now considering. “That’s how powerful states and regions are,” said Schwarzenegger. “We really are the laboratories for the national governments. That’s where the action is.”

California’s EPA Waiver: Does it Still Matter?

Deja vu all over again. Photo: Craig Miller

Deja vu all over again. Photo: Craig Miller

Today the federal Environmental Protection Agency formally granted the waiver that California has sought since 2002, allowing the state to set its own standards for greenhouse gas emissions from cars.

But wait–didn’t this already happen for practical purposes, last month? That’s when the Obama administration announced its intent to essentially put California’s proposed standards in place nationwide.

Well, yes–and no. Bernadette Del Chiaro, who represents the group Environment California, says that having the waiver is more than a legal technicality. She says it means that the state can get started sooner, cleaning up tailpipe emissions. Del Chiaro explains that: “California’s standards kick in now, through 2016. The federal program that President Obama has extended throughout the entire country, starts in 2013 (also through 2016).”

That gives the states, in effect, a three-year jump-start. In 2013, everybody should be on the same page.

California’s chief air regulator,  Mary Nichols said, in a written statement:
“The waiver affirms California’s authority to set the standards for the cleanest cars in the nation and recognizes the ability of forward-thinking states to continue to adopt them. Now we can begin to work with the manufacturers to make a new generation of cars that deliver all the comfort and power we have come to expect but with improved efficiency and far fewer greenhouse gas emissions. ”

Thirteen other states had also pursued the waiver and can now proceed with their own programs.

While automakers have long argued that the tighter regs will make cars more expensive, Environment California calculates that they’ll “save consumers $36 billion at the pump by 2020.” That projection assumed that gasoline would would average about $2 per gallon over that period. Higher pump prices (which seem a lot more likely) would in turn, increase expected savings, as the underlying premise is that we’ll be driving cars that get better gas mileage.

But of course those cars will cost more than the clunkers we’re wheeling around in now. The state Air Resources Board estimates that the clean car regulations will tack an average of $1,000 onto the price of a new car by 2016. Obviously that would offset some of the pump savings.

New Tailpipe Regs are an “Alternate Reality”

Amy Standen specializes in science and environmental reporting for Quest. She’s among the guests today on KQED’s Forum program. Listen to the archived program here.

Hazy day in L.A. Photo: Craig Miller

Hazy day in L.A. Photo: Craig Miller

Yesterday afternoon, as I started working on my news spot about the new federal standard for tailpipe emissions, I dug up my notes from over a year ago, the last time I covered this story in any depth.

The contrast in tone between then and now amazed me. Back then, I was describing accusations of outright lying, government actions that California enviros called “completely illegal,” and California officials “sharpening their knives” as they marched into battle with EPA former Administrator Stephen Johnson. It was September, 2007, and Democratic lawmakers, led by Henry Waxman (D-CA), were accusing the White House of strong-arming the EPA into denying California its “waiver,” or permission to regulate auto tailpipe emissions. The mood between California environmentalists, many of the state’s elected officials, and the Bush administration couldn’t have been more hostile.

Today, it’s as if we’ve landed in an alternate reality.  Not only has California been given its more fuel-efficient cars, but those same laws are taking effect nationwide. The new rules actually exceed anything that California–traditionally the most ambitious state in the union, when it comes to greenhouse gas regulation–could have asked for.

Instead of knives being sharpened, California enviros are singing the praises of “an historic blueprint to carry out rigorous greenhouse gas emission standards,” to quote one email I received today. Another group told the New York Times: “This is the single biggest step the American government has ever taken to cut greenhouse gas emissions.” Compared to the fall of ’07–actually make that since ’05, when California first asked for the waiver and the EPA first started stalling–it’s like night and day.

Still, listening in to the White House background press briefing on Monday afternoon, you could hear the seeds of criticism taking root in a few reporters’ questions.

Sure, American automakers will be making more fuel-efficient cars, one reporter asked, but what is the White House doing to encourage consumers to buy them? (in addition to restricting tailpipe emissions, the new rules also substantially increase fuel efficiency standards for manufacturers’ fleets–SUVs and trucks will still be available; they’ll be more fuel efficient than before, but less efficient than smaller cars.) The question takes on new relevance as the federal government finds itself a major stockholder in auto companies.

President Obama says the new regs will have the equivalent impact of taking 177 million cars off the road.

Green Response to EPA’s CO2 Finding: “Duh.”

Reactions are coming in to The EPA’s long-awaited finding today that carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases pose a threat to “the public health and welfare.” One California environmental group actually used the word “Duh” in its official response.

After two years of study, prodded by a Supreme Court decision, the federal agency finds that CO2, methane, oxides of nitrogen and two other industrial gases should be regulated as pollutants under the Clean Air Act. A sampling of reactions:

Environment California:

“‘Duh’ may not be a scientific term, but it applies here.  Today, common sense prevailed over pressure from Big Oil and other big polluters to deny the obvious in order to maintain the status quo on energy.  EPA has embraced the basic facts on global warming that scientists around the world have acknowledged for years.”

Governor Schwarzenegger:

“While the federal government was asleep at the wheel for years, we in California have known greenhouse gases are a threat to our health and to our environment – that’s why we have taken such aggressive action to reduce harmful emissions and move toward a greener economy. Two years after the Supreme Court declared greenhouse gas emissions a pollutant, it’s promising to see the new administration in Washington showing signs that it will take an aggressive leadership role in fighting climate change that will lead to reduced emissions, thousands of new green jobs and a healthier future for our children and our planet.”

Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma–boldface is his):

“Today’s action by the EPA is the beginning of a regulatory barrage that will destroy jobs, raise energy prices for consumers, and undermine America’s global competitiveness,” Senator Inhofe said. “It now appears EPA’s regulatory reach will find its way into schools, hospitals, assisted living facilities, and just about any activity that meets minimum thresholds in the Clean Air Act.  Rep. John Dingell was right: the endangerment finding will produce a ‘glorious mess.’

The Wilderness Society:

“This finding was expected, but long overdue because the previous administration respected neither the science nor the law. The consequence of this finding is that EPA will now begin the task of reducing these emissions through the permitting process provided by the Clean Air Act. One way or the other, the clear and present danger of endlessly dumping pollutants into the atmosphere must be confronted.  We will either find a way to build a future for our children based on clean energy and sustainable jobs, or we will face a very unsentimental foe unarmed – a climate that makes life unsustainable. The choice is clear, and the new Administration is following the wisest path forward.”

California moved to regulate carbon emissions three years ago, when state lawmakers passed the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, also known as AB 32. But many specific regulations required by that law have yet to take effect.

EPA Waiver Still Not “In the Can”

Now the waiting begins–or resumes. After nearly seven hours watching opposing sides duke it out in a Beltway hearing room this week, the EPA will settle down to deciding (again) if California should be allowed to set its own standards for auto emissions.

During the hearing, one group was using Twitter to pass around an online petition supporting the required EPA waiver. They weren’t too late. EPA will continue accepting public comment until April 6. EPA spokesman Cathy Milbourn says “We will review all of the comments, with a decision to follow.” No further timeline for that decision has been made public, however.

Meanwhile, the Detroit News is reporting today that California’s top air regulator may be ready to compromise on a new national standard that would obviate the need for a special waiver.

In case you need a quick review, the issue is whether the tailpipe emissions standards passed into law by California several years ago–the so-called Pavley regulations–can actually be enforced. The Pavley standards are more stringent than the current federal standard and the state is leaning heavily on them to attain its greenhouse gas targets under the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (AB 32). But the waiver was denied under the Bush administration.

Thirteen other states are lined up to enact the California standard if they get a green light from EPA. The auto industry has long argued that this will create a “patchwork” of regulations across the nation, and the ensuing complications of compliance would place an onerous burden on the industry and push up prices for car buyers.

Supporters of the California standard, like Jim Kliesch of the Union of Concerned Scientists, say that automakers already have the technology and can easily comply. Kliesch conceded that consolidating the most efficient technology into one car would add–he figures–about $700 to the cost. But he says the same technology would recoup $1,800 in fuel savings over the life of the car.

Mark Cooper of the Consumer Federation of America pointed to an apparent disconnect in the car maket. He referred to a survey in which half the respondents said they wanted their next car to get at least 30 MPG–but Cooper said only 2% of models currently on the market deliver that.

And so, the argument goes, that if car makers would just follow the market toward cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars, it would actually help them recover from a financial abyss that threatens to topple them.

At the end of the day, the EPA has to make its decision based on three criteria, says David Doniger of the NRDC. To be valid, the California standard must be:

1. Equally strict or more stringent than the federal standard,

2. Needed to meet “compelling and extraordinary conditions,” and

3. Technologically and economically feasible.

Hmm. It seems like you could make a solid case for checking off numbers 1 and 2 but what’s “economically feasible” is a potential tripwire, especially with General Motors teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Much of it will come down to whether the Obama administration buys into the “patchwork” argument. It’ll be at least another month before we know.

A Few Miles Closer to that EPA Waiver

img_1777.JPGContinuing his methodical repudiation of Bush administration policies, President Obama today took California’s long-delayed request to regulate tailpipe emissions off the shelf. The President ordered an immediate review of the state’s request for a waiver to supersede federal requirements with its own, stricter ones.

We should be just as clear about what didn’t happen, however. He did not throw a thunderbolt at the EPA and reverse the previous administration’s denial of said waiver. He essentially told new EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to put it back on top of the stack in her in-box. Jackson had already promised a “speedy review” of California’s request, during questioning at her Senate confirmation hearing. “Speedy” is a relative term, however and the reality is that it will likely be months before we get a final decision.

Though there is little doubt what that decision will be, the President did leave room for the EPA to soften the blow to the destitute auto industry. Automakers claim that the waiver will cost them billions in new investments and add an average of $5,000 to the price of new cars.

There’s a lot on the line for California, which had taken the EPA to court over the waiver. The state’s proposed tailpipe emission standards (known as the Pavley regulations) account for nearly 20% of the hoped-for CO2 reductions in the Global Warming Solutions Act (AB-32) and 70% of the attendant economic gains (estimated to be $11 billion).

Some reactions to the White House executive order today…

From the Governor:

“With this announcement from President Obama less than a week into his administration, it is clear that California and the environment now have a strong ally in the White House. Allowing California and other states to aggressively reduce their own harmful vehicle tailpipe emissions would be a historic win for clean air and for millions of Americans who want more fuel-efficient, environmentally-friendly cars.”

From Bernadette del Chiaro, Environment California:

“After being stuck in reverse for eight years when it comes to clean energy and global warming policy, President Obama has taken America from 0 to 60 in six days. From here on, science and not special interests will be in the driver’s seat in America.”

 You get the idea. It was high fives all around and a cavalcade of automotive metaphors in Sacramento today.



California Lobbies for Early Action on EPA Waiver

cars.jpgWasting no time, California officials sent letters to the Obama Administration on its first day, asking that the EPA approve the state’s request for a Clean Air Act waiver, which would allow California to set stricter standards for passenger vehicle greenhouse gas emissions.

As Sasha Khokha recently reported for The California Report, Sacramento requested the waiver from the EPA in 2005, only to see it denied in March 2008, a move that has blocked the state from enforcing its own laws designed to reduce tailpipe emissions.  The state has been fighting for the waiver for the last year along with several other states that have adopted the same regulations.

If granted, the waiver would allow California to take steps to reduce emissions from passenger cars 30 percent by 2016.

In his written appeal, Gov. Schwarzenegger asked that President Obama “direct the EPA to act promptly and favorably on California’s reconsideration request so that we may continue the critical work of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and their impact on global climate change.”

California Air Resources Board chair Mary Nichols also spoke out Wednesday, in a letter to the new designated EPA head Lisa Jackson, stating that “the decision made by the former adminstrator to deny  California the waiver to enforce our clean air car laws was flawed, factually and legally, in fundamental ways.”

At her confirmation hearing, Jackson said only that she promised a “speedy review” of California’s waiver issue.

This fact sheet from CARB explains more about California’s emissions standards for cars and the agency’s take on the waiver controversy.

AB-32: Now What?

Whew. OK, two years after California’s Global Warming Solutions Act was passed into law, the “solutions” package now has the force of regulation…sort of.

The unanimous vote of the California Air Resources Board yesterday to accept its “scoping plan” for implementation, wasn’t so much the final gun as the second-half kickoff. Don’t get me wrong: the vote was momentous as a kind of intermediate milestone. But there’s a lot to do if the law is really to kick in as scheduled, three years from now.

For instance, there’s that whole cap-and-trade thing. When it comes to putting a market in place for trading carbon credits, the carbon cops in Sacramento have agreed to collaborate with a half-dozen other states and follow the general conventions of the Western Climate Initiative, which are still to be worked out.

Then there’s that pesky EPA waiver to let California put its own regulations for tailpipe emissions in place. The state law enabling that has been on the books for about five years now, stalled by federal EPA officials under the Bush administration. Okay, that’s a gimme. We already know that waiver will finally be granted, sometime shortly after Inauguration Day. But even that signals the start of a complex internal process to get the new regs in place.

In fact, virtually nothing about AB-32 is automatic. As they say, the Devil is in the details. And most details have yet to be laid out, argued about, and worked out, before we can really start marking progress toward the broad goals of cutting greenhouse gas emissions (which are still rising, worldwide).

I sat down with James Goldstene, Executive Officer of the Air Board, and asked him what happens next. You can hear his answer by clicking on the player, below.

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