CARB asks EPA to reconsider denial of waiver for clean car law

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California Air Resources Board Chairman Mary Nichols has sent a letter to Lisa Jackson, the new designated administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, requesting that she revisit the decision by previous EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson that denied California a waiver to enforce its clean car law.

“We feel strongly that under its new leadership, EPA will recognize that the decision made by the former administrator to deny California the waiver to enforce our clean car law was flawed, factually and legally, in fundamental ways,” Nichols wrote in the letter dated Wednesday, Jan. 21. Should the EPA grant the waiver, California and 13 other states will begin a program intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from passenger vehicles 30 percent by 2016.

In the letter, Nichols points out that Johnson’s decision improperly evaluated California’s need for greenhouse gas standards in complete isolation, without also considering the context of California’s complete motor vehicle emissions control program. This created a new set of hurdles and test that no other waiver request had triggered, Nichols wrote.

Nichols also indicates that California believes that EPA can reconsider its decision in a manner that fulfills its public notice and comment obligations without undue delay. This is because the issues to be reconsidered are limited in scope, and there already has been extensive comment input by stakeholders and the public on the waiver request, she argues.

The federal Clean Air Act allows California, because of its smog problems, to exceed nationwide air-quality rules if the state obtains a waiver from EPA, which had not denied any of the state’s applications since the law took effect more than 30 years ago.

Johnson said Dec. 19, 2007, that President Bush had just signed a law increasing gas mileage standards for cars and trucks and that a nationwide approach to controlling greenhouse gases was preferable to state-by-state regulation. Johnson also said California didn’t qualify for a waiver because greenhouse gases were not unique to the state.

California sued the Bush administration on Jan. 2, 2008, over its refusal to grant the waiver; the lawsuit against EPA was joined by 15 other states that had adopted similar laws or were in the process of doing so, along with four environmental organizations.

EPA’s decision was considered a victory for automakers, which had argued that they would have been forced to reduce their selection of vehicles and raise prices in the states that adopted California’s standards. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said federal regulators were “ignoring the will of millions of people who want their government to take action in the fight against global warming.”

California’s law, passed in 2002, established the nation’s first limits on auto emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases that scientists consider to be among the major causes of global warming. The law was scheduled to take effect with the 2009 models and would have required a 30 percent emissions reduction by 2016.

In response to the suits, EPA again cited the new law raising gas mileage requirements. “We now have a more beneficial national approach to a national problem, which establishes an aggressive standard for all 50 states as opposed to a lower standard in California and a patchwork of other states,” said Jonathan Shradar, a spokesman for the federal agency.

California officials said the state’s law actually would require greater fuel efficiency at an earlier date – 2016 instead of the 2020 timetable in the federal law.