On the Road to a National GHG Auto Standard

Craig Miller

Photo: Craig Miller

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) announced Thursday that the state has fulfilled its part of the May 2009 agreement set between auto manufacturers and two federal agencies that will establish the nation’s first greenhouse gas emissions standard for cars.

The new regulation adopted Thursday contains what CARB spokesman Stanley Young called “largely technical fixes,” including a change that will allow cars that meet the federal standard in the years 2012 to 2016 to be counted as compliant with the stricter California standard.  (The federal standard goes into effect in 2012.  It differs from the California standard until the two reach the same levels in 2016.)

The California law mandating rules to cut greenhouse gas emissions from cars, AB 1493, was passed in 2002.  Between 2005 and 2009, the state fought for an EPA waiver that would allow it to implement a standard tougher than existing federal rules. Last May, President Obama announced a national standard for tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases  modeled on California’s rules.  In June, the U.S. EPA  granted the waiver the state had long sought.  See the CARB website for a history of the struggles over the regulations.

CARB says that national implementation of the standard will cut 941 million tons of CO2 by 2020, compared to 793 million tons had the standard been limited to California and the thirteen states that had adopted California’s rules.

AB 1493 would not be affected by a suspension of AB 32, an issue Californians may be voting on soon.

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.

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.