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Taking It to the States

The fight for clean cars moves beyond Washington

By Reed McManus

As California drives, so drives the nation. To keep up with trends in the largest and most influential car market in the United States, all major automakers operate design studios in the Los Angeles area. What they’ve found is that Californians don’t just want their vehicles to be stylish–they want them to be good for the environment too. And carmakers are fuming.

That’s because California has done what Washington, D.C., won’t do: cap the levels of greenhouse gases that can be emitted by cars and light trucks. Responding to the news that 40 percent of California’s greenhouse-gas emissions are produced by vehicles, the state passed a bill in July that gives the California Air Resources Board sweeping authority to regulate carbon dioxide and other gases linked to climate change. The easiest way to reduce them is to make cars more fuel efficient–a move that’s anathema to Detroit.

The legislation was cruising through the statehouse this spring when it seemed to hit a brick wall: an all-out media effort by carmakers, oil companies, and the United Auto Workers to discredit the bill. Trotting out cowboy-hatted celebrity car dealer Cal Worthington, the bill’s opponents ran TV, newspaper, and radio ads suggesting that the air board was ready to raise gas taxes, penalize motorists for the number of miles they drive, or levy fees on gas guzzlers. (In fact, the air agency is prohibited from raising gas taxes, and the bill doesn’t spell out specific actions to be taken–which just fueled the creativity of the spinmeisters.)

Now that they’ve lost in Sacramento, automakers will likely go to court arguing that California’s landmark law is illegal. Their claim: the clean-air legislation is really a fuel-economy bill, and only Washington can tinker with mileage standards. Of course, Detroit has already made sure that won’t happen any time soon.

The California bill is a sign of the growing effort by states to fight auto pollution while Washington creeps along in the slow lane. Under federal law, states can choose to follow either federal air standards or California’s stricter version, established in the early 1990s and later adopted by New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, and, in modified form, Maine. (New Jersey will likely soon mandate California standards; Rhode Island and New Hampshire may also join the list.) In addition, Massachusetts and New York have task forces to address greenhouse gases, and Maine approved a law that requires automakers, not scrap yards, to pay for the disposal of toxic mercury components.

Detroit isn’t about to roll over for California’s clean-air dreams. After all, automakers have fought everything from effective bumpers and seat belts to California’s pioneering efforts to introduce unleaded gasoline and catalytic converters. But this time it will be harder for them to claim that change is beyond their grasp: They’ve already agreed to meet the European Union target of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 25 percent by 2008.

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