U.S. Climate Change Policy: Made in California

U.S. Climate Change Policy: Made in California

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She initially lauded automakers for supporting an effort, started by President Obama in 2009, to harmonize a mishmash of greenhouse gas emissions and fuel economy standards set by the E.P.A., the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and CARB. Having taken almost $80 billion in bailout money, General Motors and Chrysler, especially, were in no position to resist.

Still, the automakers soon balked at the ambitious pace of fuel efficiency improvements under the program, which requires automakers to progressively raise the fuel economy of their cars to an average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, nearly double the average in 2012. That comes to about 36 miles per gallon in real-world driving.

That aggressive target would compel automakers to speed the development of hybrid and electric cars, and to improve the fuel efficiency of their conventional fleets. Automakers also argued that meeting that target would be prohibitively costly, forcing them to raise car prices or to make more battery-powered vehicles than Americans want to buy.

In a compromise, the automakers agreed to the program, provided that the standards for the later years — 2022-25 — would be subject to a midterm review.

That review was in full swing when Mr. Trump won the presidency in late 2016. Just a day after his electoral victory, the Auto Alliance reached out to the president-elect, urging him to rework the standards, calling them a “substantial challenge” for the auto industry.

In a similarly swift maneuver, the Obama administration cut short the review and finalized the rules, calling them “feasible, practical and appropriate,” just before leaving office.

The automakers doubled down. In a Feb. 21 letter, the auto industry alliance implored Mr. Pruitt, the E.P.A. head, to overturn President Obama’s 11th-hour decision. The standards, the alliance argued, “threaten to depress an industry that can ill afford spiraling regulatory costs.”

The E.P.A. has reversed President Obama’s decision. Last month, the agency officially called for comments on standards for model years 2021-25, widening the review’s scope. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which focuses mostly on auto safety, not emissions, is expected to lead the review.


For now, Scott Pruitt, the E.P.A. administrator, has said that he will not seek to revoke the federal waiver that allows California to set auto emissions standards.

Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

“We’re going to work on the CAFE standards so you can make cars in America again,” Mr. Trump said in a speech in Detroit this year, referring to the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, which were first put in place in 1975.

For a meaningful reprieve, however, automakers need Ms. Nichols on board. If CARB does not sign onto the reopened review, the automakers face the prospect of separate rules for California and its follower states — a coalition that covers more than 130 million residents and more than a third of the vehicle market in the United States.

Ms. Nichols is not budging. At the first public hearing on the reopened midterm review last week, CARB’s emissions compliance chief, Annette Hebert, threatened to abandon the review if the E.P.A. took steps to weaken the emissions standards.

Should the agency try to curtail California’s ability to set its own rules — by challenging its Clean Air Act waiver, for example — the fight will more than likely end in court, said Kevin Poloncarz, a San Francisco lawyer focusing on air and climate change law.

“Pulling that waiver would be like declaring an all-out war on California,” he said.

Accusations of Overreach

Even in California, some critics challenge the expansive powers of a board of unelected officials with the authority to set environmental policy. All but two of the board’s 14 voting members are appointed by the governor, and today include a doctor, an almond farmer and a paint company executive.

Over the years, CARB has expanded its reach, regulating products as diverse as lawn mowers and bulldozers, air fresheners, paint thinners and even hair and bug spray. It has sent inspectors to Tokyo and Stuttgart, Germany, to monitor the testing of cars manufactured overseas. And it oversees a system of air-quality management districts across California that issue and enforce their own local regulations.

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