California: Clearing the air


Steve Hargreaves |

There was controversy earlier this week when President Obama decided to review California’s request to tighten emissions standards – a move that may force a crippled auto industry to build cars that get better gas mileage.

Confusion, about what exactly Obama and California were doing, was apparent on the day of the announcement.

In fact, it’s still unclear what the intentions of the administration are, and what effect California’s proposed rules would have on the auto industry, the environment and consumers.

Contrary to some reports, California would not set its own fuel-efficiency standards. It, and the 16 other states that would likely follow it, would set new air pollution standards that are stricter than the federal government’s, as they have done for the last several decades.

California needs a special waiver from the Environmental Protection Agency to set higher standards. The state has applied for this waiver dozens of times before, and it’s always been granted.

But its most recent waiver request was denied by the Bush administration on grounds that new national fuel-economy standards made California’s new rules unnecessary. Obama has now directed the EPA to review that decision.

While the waivers were always granted in the past, this most recent request raises new issues. What’s different this time around is that California wants to regulate carbon dioxide, the main gas behind global warming, which is not a simple task.

Carbon dioxide cannot be simply captured from a car’s tailpipe like a lot of other pollutants. The only way carmakers would be able to meet these new standards is by selling vehicles that get better gas mileage in those states. Cars that burn less gas emit less carbon dioxide – effectively raising mileage standards.

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