Now the auto industry has sued California-not only over the new rules, but challenging the state's very authority to set its own emissions standards.
Seven eastern states, and now Canada, are poised to adopt California standards, which would mean one-third of all new vehicles in the U.S./Canadian market would have to meet these tougher emission rules. "Eight plus one equals 50," says Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club's Global Warming Program. The rest of the nation may benefit, given the logistics of production. With enough states adopting these rules, automakers would find it increasingly harder to build a cleaner car for some regions and a dirtier one for everyone else.
The new California rules stem from a 2002 law sponsored by Assemblywoman Fran Pavley that aims for a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse emissions by 2016. The Sierra Club helped to craft these rules, now endorsed by the California Air Resources Board and up for state legislature review in 2005.
Under the Clean Air Act, California has the authority to set emissions standards that are tougher than federal law, and other states may choose to adopt California's standards instead of the weaker federal standards. "Each state has to do its part because of the failure of the Bush administration to act," says Jeff Tittel, New Jersey chapter director.
For coastal states like New Jersey, rising ocean levels and other global warming effects are imminent concerns. Yet the state was embroiled in a two-year legislative battle to adopt California's standards. The deadlock was finally broken when 15,000 faxes poured in from activists supporting the regulations, dubbed the "California car bill."
The auto industry is resisting these efforts, beginning with a lawsuit filed in December that challenges California's emissions rules. Bill Magavern, the Club's legislative coordinator in Sacramento, notes that the rules don't come in conflict with federally regulated standards on fuel economy, as The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers has claimed. He hopes that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger will keep the Bush administration from intervening on behalf of industry.
"Once they stop putting resources into lawyers to fight the new rule, the auto industry can put them into engineers to design new vehicles," says Magavern.
However, automakers want to take the battle a step further by removing California's unique authority to set its own emissions standards. State initiatives have been an important way to deal with environmental concerns that the Bush administration has ignored. Since California needs a waiver from the EPA to implement these rules, battles loom ahead with industry-friendly forces in the very agencies designed to protect environmental safety. Becker hopes that Schwarzenegger will take a stand for the public interest when he runs for reelection in 2006-the same year the California regulations will take effect.
Bush administration policies have continued to benefit polluting industries. By declaring that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant, the EPA could present yet another challenge to state efforts to regulate greenhouse gases. The Sierra Club plans to file a suit in April, ordering the EPA to cover carbon dioxide as a pollutant.
In New Jersey, the Car Dealer Association actually proved to be the greatest obstacle to change. It invested more than $2.5 million in campaign contributions and lobbying fees to resist adoption of the California car bill. "It was a full employment act for the New Jersey lobbying industry," quips Tittel.
Becker believes that the auto industry's antics are self-defeating. The biggest American automakers are losing market share "hand over fist" to companies like Honda and Toyota, two companies which enjoy an image as clean car manufacturers thanks to their hybrid models. "It creates a huge risk for domestic auto companies if they don't act," Becker remarks.
California has been a trendsetter since the 1960s, when air pollution problems were so severe that it was given the right to set its own emissions standards. This was a new era for regulations governing the environment, health and safety. Decades later, when California adopted standards for low emissions vehicles in 1990 and 1998, other states were able to follow suit because of an amendment to the Clean Air Act.
The auto industry is fighting change just as it did in the 90s, but a groundswell to curb global warming is growing at the state level. In addition to New York, New Jersey, and five New England states, Washington state recently decided to adopt California's standards. Magavern encourages Sierra Club members to write to their state legislators and governors to support adoption of these rules.
"We need to take advantage of opportunities where progressive states and a neighboring progressive country want to act to protect their citizens," said Becker. "This will force industry to capitulate and make cleaner cars."