Bill aims to allow CA to clean up air

Cindy Von Quednow

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A bill in the House of Representatives aims to allow California to implement greenhouse emission standards stricter than that of the federal government. The Environmental Protection Agency granted California a waiver to be able to do so.

“The main problem is that the federal government isn’t doing its job,” said California Congressman Brad Sherman, who introduced the Right to Clean Vehicles Act, or HR 5560, along with Peter Welch, the at-large representative from Vermont. “California and a whole lot of other states . . . want to go out on their own and regulate tailpipe emissions.”

The waiver would have granted California the ability to implement standards set by Assembly Bill 1493, passed in 2002, that would cut emissions by 30 percent by 2016. If they receive the waivers, Vermont and 11 other states could then implement their specific changes. The EPA denied California’s waiver in December of last year after considering it since 2005.

Peter Bellin, professor of environmental and occupational health, said, “There was no doubt that the EPA was going to deny the waiver (because) it is a political assessment, not a scientific assessment.”

“The EPA could have responded to California . . . looked at the facts to come to the conclusion that the waiver was warranted, but it’s all political,” said Bellin.

The EPA has granted numerous waivers to California in the past, dealing with leaded gasoline regulators and catalytic converters.

Sherman said of the rejection waiver, “Fifty-two prior times the federal government allowed California to set its own standards, only under Bush did they say no.”

Mathew Cahn, chair of the political science department and an expert in environmental policy, said, “California came up with the most rigorous plan of any state, probably of any political jurisdiction on the planet at that point.”

“California created a fabulous set of approaches to deal with the problem differentially,” said Cahn.

Experts agree that because of California’s location on the coast, and its high reliance on ports and trains for the trade economy, the state, and particularly Los Angeles, has a high level of pollution.

“We have a severe pollution problem in Los Angeles due to high pressure concentration that exists in this area,” said Antonio Machado, associate professor of environmental and occupational health. “The California EPA is in a far better position than the federal one to make a judgment on a solution for the pollution problem.”

In a letter addressed to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger after California was denied the request, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson wrote that although previous waivers have been granted in the past, he believed the problem of global climate change is not specific to California.

“Unlike pollutants covered by the other waivers, greenhouse gas emissions harm the environment in California and elsewhere, regardless of where the emissions occur,” Johnson’s letter shows. “This challenge is not exclusive or unique to California, and it differs in a basic way from the previous local and regional air pollution problems addressed in prior waivers.”

The waiver was denied one day after the president signed the Energy Independence and Security Act, which Johnson cites as a comprehensive law that addresses the entire nation.

“This legislation will deliver energy security benefits and bring a much needed national approach to addressing global climate change, improving the environment for all Americans,” Johnson’s letter shows.

Cahn said California’s conflict with the EPA also represents a conflict between energy efficiency and reducing harmful emissions.

“We clearly understand our need to increase energy opportunities while simultaneously trying to decrease the negative environmental impacts of energy creation,” said Cahn. “But for one state to move in a way that would inhibit certain types of energy use, that would have a negative offset on the amount of energy that would potentially be available.”

“It’s not that we think air pollution is OK. It’s that were trying to balance air pollution control with the production of cheap and abundant energy,” said Cahn.

“We don’t see much sacrifice, and it’s disingenuous to talk about our need to tread lightly on the environmental side for fear of overusing energy resources when half the population is driving SUVs,” said Cahn. “There’s a disconnect there somewhere.”

During April 2007, 16 months after the original waiver was filed, Schwarzenegger wrote to Johnson, intending to sue the EPA for delayed action. In early 2008, two weeks after the rejection, California Attorney General Edmund Brown filed a lawsuit in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals against the agency.

While the suit is still pending, HR 5560 seeks to create federal law that would overturn the decision and thereby grant California and the other states the ability to implement the wanted changes in an effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

“We need significant action in that area, not just here, but around the world,” said Bellin.

Although he agrees the bill and its sponsors have merit, Cahn said it is the best way to address the bigger problem of global climate change.

“I don’t see how any one state can usurp that regulatory authority (of the EPA) on its own without creating chaos, and I don’t see how changing the Clean Air Act though federal law?would solve the bigger problem,” said Cahn.

“I do agree that the Clean Air Act needs to change to respond to the realities where we find ourselves, but I wouldn’t agree that a bill, to somehow require EPA to accept a waiver, is the way to do it,” said Cahn.

Cahn said that although Sherman and Welch’s efforts are laudable, the problem goes beyond California.

“California correctly ought to be pushing and lobbying and demanding the right to regulate these elements,” said Cahn. “Whether congress should create federal law is a different issue.”

“(California) is creating some demand for piecemeal changes, but it’s not really a problem that can be solved by piecemeal changes,” said Cahn. “(The bill) still doesn’t speak to the inability of federal regulations to fully deal with the climate change question.”

Sherman said he faces opposition on this bill from the president and the Senate under the current conservative administration.

“I think it’s got a good chance of passing the House of Representatives. The Senate is problematic and, of course, the president’s signature is not going to be there,” said Sherman. “On the other hand, we’ll have a new president come January, so if we can get the bill through both houses, even if it gets vetoed, we can then ask people to vote for it again.”

Cahn said Bush has a huge influence on how the EPA acts, especially since the president appoints the head of the agency.

“We’re currently living through the last year of a presidential administration that denies that these problems are as substantive as they are and, for the last seven years, has not been acting consistent with what their own agency’s scientists have been requesting and demanding, so we might see a change in a year,” said Cahn.