Obama Gives States Power to Regulate Tailpipe Emissions
By Doug Myers, CSG energy & environment policy analyst
President Barack Obama has ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider California’s application to regulate tailpipe emissions. The action could have far-reaching effects: If California’s application is approved, 13 other states are likely to adopt California’s law regulating automobile admissions.
Stephen L. Johnson, the former head of the EPA, denied the waiver in late 2007 against the advice of agency lawyers and scientists, saying that carbon dioxide was not a pollutant. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in April 2007 in the case, Massachusetts v. EPA, that CO2 is a pollutant and the EPA should regulate it.
The Bush administration also argued that allowing California and the 13 other states the right to set their own pollution rules would result in an unenforceable patchwork of environmental law.
Automakers also opposed the waiver, saying it would require them to build two sets of vehicles—one to meet the stricter standards and another for other states.
In fact, David E. Cole, chairmanof the Center for Automotive Research, an independent research organization in Ann Arbor, Mich., told The New York Times, the California regulations, if enacted today, “would basically kill the industry. It would have a devastating effect on everybody, and not just the domestics.”
And now that the Califronia waiver is being revisited, it is now highly likely that the EPA will grant California’s waiver request and permit it—and any other state that chooses to adopt California’s law—the power to regulate tailpipe emissions.
Transportation is the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, second only to electric power generation, according to the Energy Information Administration. Transportation represents about one-third of all emissions, with personal automobiles representing 60 percent of that or 20 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA. Thus tailpipe emissions represent a significant and vital source from which to tackle climate change.
But environmental advocates say regulations like the ones in California will actually help automakers. David Doniger, climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told The New York Times that failing to invest in reducing emissions and increasing efficiency will only prolong Detroit’s problems.
“I think this is the pathway to their survival,” he said. “If carmakers are going to survive in a world of volatile oil prices and global warming, they have to be making more efficient vehicles. When the economy comes back and people start buying cars again, they’re going to expect that gas prices are going to go up, and they’re not going to want the gas hogs that they used to want. Consumers’ tastes have changed in terms of what’s cool.”
The federal government has found it increasingly difficult to address the issue of climate change, but states have taken it upon themselves to address the problem with cap-and-trade programs and renewable portfolio standards. As states move to economy-wide emissions control schemes in a broader attempt to control carbon emissions, more states—especially those in regional initiatives—will adopt California’s law. That means those states that are part of climate change initiatives—19 have joined regional initiatives to date—are likely to adopt California’s more stringent emissions controls.
The president’s order to have the EPA reconsider the waiver request signals the importance he places on combating climate change and is likely dual purposed. By allowing states broader control, programs aimed at mitigating climate change will be fast-tracked. The action could also spur Congress to pass comprehensive legislation.