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The Planet

California Emissions Bill Paves Way for Cleaner Cars
By Tom Valtin

When California passed the nation's toughest automobile emissions law this summer, it not only stood up to the auto industry-which spent millions of dollars trying to defeat it-it also paved the way for other states to follow suit. Assembly Bill 1493, signed into law by Governor Gray Davis on July 24, will establish new emissions guidelines for automobiles sold in California.

californians for clean air
Californians for Clean Air

"Opponents of this bill say the sky is falling," Davis told reporters. "But they said it about unleaded gasoline. They said it about catalytic converters. They said it about seat belts and air bags. The sky is not falling. It's just getting a whole lot cleaner."

The milestone bill is the first to address the issue of global warming. It will require automakers to cut CO2 emissions from cars and light trucks by the 2008 model year, and it directs the California Air Resources Board to determine by how much overall emissions should be reduced. Because the Air Resources Board predates the federal government's Environmental Protection Agency, California is unique in being allowed to set its own, more stringent, air quality regulations. And once the state does so, under the Clean Air Act, other states may adopt California's more advanced safeguards.

Maine, Massachusetts, New York, and Vermont have already adopted the "California Car" emissions program, setting the stage for them to adopt California's new emissions standards once they are established. The Clean Air Act limits the emissions restrictions that can be placed on vehicles sold in the United States to two categories: those set by the federal EPA and those set by California law. Other states that seek to reduce motor vehicle air pollution by more than federal standards can only do so by adopting California's standards.

Automakers made a concerted effort to defeat AB 1493, fielding a team of lobbyists in Sacramento and airing ads attacking the bill. "Supporters of this legislation don't want you driving SUVs, pickups and minivans," one ad claimed. "If they really had their way, they wouldn't let you drive at all!" But such hyperbole failed to sway either the assembly or the public: a recent poll found that 81 percent of Californians support the measure.

In 1970, the American Automobile Manufacturers Association warned that the Clean Air Act would force its companies out of business. Not long thereafter, General Motors told Congress that requiring catalytic converters-relatively simple technology that has since eliminated millions of tons of pollution-could bring production to a halt. Auto manufacturers also forecast that it would cost $800 per car to meet California's 1994 low-emission vehicle standards; the actual cost turned out to be $80.

With California representing 10 percent of the national auto market, the passage of AB 1493 is expected to prod manufacturers to begin building cleaner cars and light trucks using already existent technologies. Automakers had threatened to organize a referendum on the bill, but when Ford and Toyota declined to participate, the other manufacturers dropped the idea.

Environmental leaders, buoyed by the bill's signing, were gracious in praising Davis, despite the fact that he was officially neutral on the legislation when it was first introduced. "With one stroke of the pen, [Davis] did more to reduce global warming emissions than the other 49 governors combined," said Russell Long, executive director of Bluewater Network, the San Francisco-based environmental group that came up with the original idea for the bill.

"Today we celebrate the vision of our elected leaders," rejoiced Julia Bott, chair of Sierra Club California. Bott credited Assemblywoman Fran Pavley (D-Los Angeles) the author of AB 1493, Senate President John Burton (D-San Francisco) and Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson (D-Los Angeles/Culver City), for keeping the issue alive when many of their colleagues appeared eager to duck it.

"We don't get bills like this approved every year," Bott said. "This bill is important because we all drive. And as much as we want to do the right thing by the environment, we still drive. So it's great to have our leaders give us an alternative so we don't leave a legacy of a changed climate."

The Sierra Club has been pushing for more than a decade to improve the fuel economy of America's fleet and reduce fuel emissions. Executive Director Carl Pope described the campaign for AB 1493 as a team effort involving the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Union of Concerned Scientists, among others.

"The Club spent $50,000 on this bill," said Carl Zichella, regional director of the Sierra Club's California field office. "We made thousands of phone calls, took out a full-page ad in the Sacramento Bee to rebut the auto industry's distortions, and made AB 1493 a top priority during this legislative session." Zichella praised Bill Magavern, Sierra Club California State Legislative Director Bill Allayaud, and lobbyist John White for their work.

In an August 7 speech to auto industry management in Traverse City, Michigan, Ford Motor Company Chairman William Clay Ford Jr. warned that a credibility gap on environmental issues was eroding America's love for cars. While saying he did not support the new California law, Ford suggested that the auto industry faced a problem on environmentalism not unlike the recent problems faced by other industries on accounting and corporate governance. "The same basic issue, lack of trust, is there," he said. "But new technology could rejuvenate [Americans'] love affair with automobiles."

Musing on the auto industry's campaign to defeat AB 1493, the Minneapolis Star Tribune editorialized: "That the industry's arguments failed in the center of American car culture is a sign of how shopworn they have become after decades of routine use."

The fight isn't over, though. Before Governor Davis' signature was even dry on the bill, automakers were threatening to challenge the new law in court.

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