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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

California Air

Air Date: Week of

California is moving to counter climate change, by requiring new controls on cars in five years. Detroit is up in arms and says it’s a federal, not a state issue. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet takes a look at where greenhouse gases fit into California’s 50 year fight against air pollution.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

As California goes, so goes the nation - at least on the environment. Now, California is addressing global warming by moving to become the first state to force automakers to build cars that give off fewer climate-changing gasses. The state’s air agency is expected to vote on the final regulation in a few days.

Today, Living on Earth looks forward, and also looks back. Forward, to where this latest conflict between California and the auto industry might lead. And back, at how climate change fits in to the five-decade long fight in California for clean air. Ingrid Lobet begins our report with a visit to one low-key, yet key player.

LOBET: This most ambitious California effort, to address global warming at a state level, didn't begin with a celebrity press conference. Instead, three and a half years ago, the director of a small environmental group--the Bluewater Network--visited the office of State Assemblymember Fran Pavley, who'd just gotten her phone connected.


PAVLEY: I was a brand new freshman legislator, just gotten in, took my oath of office, putting together my bill package for the first time.

LOBET: The Bluewater Network's Russell Long asked Pavley if she would initiate the first legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars and light trucks. These vehicles give off about one third of California's total greenhouse gasses. It sounded simple, but it would be uncharted territory.

PAVLEY: And so I introduced this bill. Unbeknownst to me they'd probably been shopping the bill to all the other more senior legislators who said "No way," --So it was a relatively easy decision for you? -- Yes, because I figured you know... no thought that the bill would actually pass.

LOBET: If Pavley didn't hesitate, she says it's partly because she lives in southern California, a region that depends on mountain snow-pack for its daily water. And she and her family often visit a coastline she views as vulnerable as the world warms.


PAVLEY: We're sitting on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific ocean in Malibu, and some of the biggest impacts to California, as far as climate change are not only the early melt of the Sierra snow-pack. We're also concerned about sea level rising, predictions of five to ten inches perhaps in the next century and we have 1100 miles of coastline.


LOBET: The proposed regulations require automakers to begin reducing their emissions of greenhouse gasses in 2009: a total of 34% for cars and 25% for SUVs by 2016.

But when automakers and car dealers looked at the bill, they saw something else: less desirable cars. That's because the main global warming gas emitted by cars and SUVs is carbon dioxide, which can't be filtered out. It's reduced by burning less fuel. In order to burn less fuel, carmakers say, you install smaller engines. Smaller engines run lighter, smaller cars. Charlie Territo spoke for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

TERRITO: If we do have to meet this law, I can almost guarantee that Californians will be driving smaller, lighter and less powerful vehicles. There will be limits to the types of vehicles that will be offered in California because of that.

LOBET: Look what cars Americans are actually choosing, argues the Alliance. Fully half the vehicles now sold each year in America are SUVs, despite the hype about the Toyota hybrid Prius and its long waiting list.

TERRITO: Consumers look for cargo capacity, they look for reliability, they look for safety, they look for towing capacity. But on a list of what consumers look for most when they purchase new cars, fuel economy is very, very far down on the list.

LOBET: California regulators said manufacturers can comply using existing or "off-the-shelf" technology, and they estimate it will initially add about $300 to the purchase price of a car or truck. They also said that cost would be more than made up in fuel savings over time.

But soon car dealerships had organized together with automakers and autoworkers against the proposed regulation, in a multi-million dollar effort. The heavy hitters and the pressures didn't seem to phase first term legislator Fran Pavley, a fact she attributes to her former line of work: teaching middle school.

PAVLEY: You deal with 13 year olds, you know, you can probably go with any kind of challengers and you never show weakness.

LOBET: And in time, Pavley's bill collected its own array of heavy hitters: 23 cosponsors, backing from the ski industry, water agencies, religious leaders, nurses and Silicon Valley businesses. It squeaked past the legislature in 2002 and in a ceremony that some said would be the most important of their careers, then-Governor Gray Davis signed it into law.

DAVIS: In a few moments I will be pleased to sign the first bill in America designed to combat global warming.


LOBET: And so the bill has come to rest at the California Air Resources Board, an agency with a staff of more than 900. There, scientists, analysts and engineers have rendered it from legislative intent into grams of greenhouse gasses allowed per mile. Now they've passed the plan up to their bosses, the 11-member board, to vote on on September 23rd. So much of our country's air pollution language was conceived at the Air Resources Board. The question “why” leads back to 1940s and ‘50s Los Angeles.


LOBET: It was a time of industrial growth and economic boom. But even then the combination of industry, automobiles, topography and prevailing wind were conspiring to choke Angelenos. The citrus industry was also suffering. An orchard chemist, Dr. Ari Hagen Smid discovered that the same gas --ozone --might be burning the leaves on citrus trees, and burning people's eyes and lungs. Local officials like the one in this undated film learned that the pollutant came from exhaust gasses and particles baked in sunlight.


MALE: [FILM] As mayor of Los Angeles, I am deeply concerned about the present smog conditions. I've ordered the police department to cooperate with the county air pollution control board in every manner.


LOBET: Los Angeles and San Francisco clamped down on factories and refineries. But there was little apparent benefit.

MALE: A record was set today for the longest duration of hazardous air in the history of Los Angeles and the smog conditions will be just as bad tomorrow. Everyone, no matter how physically fit is being warned to stay inside and take it easy whenever possible.


LOBET: It was becoming clear that something needed to be done about cars. So in 1960 the California Motor Vehicle Pollution Control Agency was born. Jerry Martin, chief spokesperson for the Air Resources Board, explains its first move was to require bolted-on emission control equipment.

MARTIN: Unfortunately, most of those vehicles didn't work very well with that stuff added on to 'em. The pollution control equipment, we now know, has to be part of the engine like everything else. But it was the first time a government agency had said cars are a major source of air pollution and we are in a position to do something about it.

LOBET: Remember, back then there was no Environmental Protection Agency. But buoyed by a growing body of research, California began to monitor air and in 1969 set the first air quality standards, limits based on human health.

MARTIN: It told Californians what we think you need to be breathing.

LOBET: Environmental attorney and former air board member Lynn Edgerton remembers another early step.

EDGERTON: I think one of the biggest successes that we all take for granted now was the unleaded gasoline. They came to understand that the lead in the gasoline was causing havoc, was very, very poisonous. So it was phased out in California and then in America and elsewhere.

LOBET: Again, Jerry Martin.

MARTIN: When we took lead out of gasoline we were able to add technology to cars. Catalytic converters do not work with leaded gasoline. The lead just poisons the catalyst and it's worthless. Once you took the lead out, now you can add a catalyst to a car--suddenly cars were two, three, four times cleaner than they were simply because of one technological—well, actually two technological--advances.

LOBET: Congress passed the landmark Clean Air Act, the bedrock air quality law for the nation in 1970. But since California had been regulating air for 20 years, and since its problems were so severe, its right to continue on a stricter path was written into the Act. From then on, any state could choose between federal standards and California's stricter standards. That way industry would never have to build more than two products for the US market. A core group of Northeastern states, who were themselves tackling acid rain and automobile traffic, usually went for the stricter standards.

John White directs a renewable energy group and was a longtime lobbyist for the Sierra Club. He says people came to look to the air board for expertise in atmospheric pollution and human health.

WHITE: The Air Resources Board has a long history of supporting independent scientific research by universities that is peer reviewed. Because more than any other state agency, it has integrated science and public policy. It's why they are so well respected around the world.

LOBET: The board's actions have forced technological advances, not only in cars, but in boat engines, lawnmowers and paints. Sometimes the cost to business has been high. In 1993 the board forced California oil refiners to take sulfur out of diesel based on its growing understanding of the dangers of diesel exhaust. Engines failed and diesel prices spiked. Trucks circled the Air Resources Board in Sacramento in protest. The chief of the board was forced out. But the rule held and the federal government later followed suit. The board continued to make changes.

MARTIN: Probably the most famous rule ever adopted by the Air Resources Board was our low emission vehicle rules. They required for the first time significant reductions in pollutants from motor vehicles. Starting with a 50% cut almost immediately in '94 and then moving to today's standards where cars are easily 90-95% cleaner than they were even in the mid ‘80s.

LOBET: California's air cleared substantially during the 1980s and ‘90s. In fact, if the population had stopped growing, some people say the air would actually be clean now. Instead, population increase has outstripped technological progress. Huge regions of the state still suffer from severe pollution.

Improving mileage is one way to reduce pollution, but no state, not even California, has been allowed to regulate mileage. States are prohibited from doing so. Yet some within and outside industry suspect that that is what the state is doing here with its new Greenhouse Gas rule. Eloy Garcia of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

GARCIA: California is looking at implementing regulations to control greenhouse gasses from automobiles. Technically, what that means is controlling the fuel economy. That is the only way that our engineers tell us that you can control greenhouse gasses, by controlling the fuel economy, and that is under the purview of the federal government. The concern that we have is whether California or any state were to do that on a state by state basis.

LOBET: And quite a few people agree that this time California has left itself vulnerable to legal challenge. Lynn Edgerton, environmental attorney and former board member says she was surprised when she read the document.

EDGERTON: What is striking to me is that there is no discussion of whether the proposed regulations violate the constitution of the United States. I would say that it is about 99.9 percent, I mean it’s a virtual certainty that there will be a challenge to those regulations on the grounds that federal law preempts California from imposing the regulations.

LOBET: And Edgerton gives automakers a 75 percent chance of winning that challenge. But John White thinks the new rule might just hold up.

WHITE: We actually believe that the board has a fighting chance of winning that argument. A lot of it depends on how the judges are influenced and how they are chosen.

LOBET: Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has pledged to defend the law. So a lawsuit could pit carmakers against his administration. If it must go to court, California may argue that this is not a mileage rule, because carmakers can reduce any greenhouse gas, not just carbon dioxide. Roland Hwang is vehicles policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

HWANG: One of my favorite technologies is simply tighter seals and better hoses on the air conditioning system. Most people don't realize that the current refrigerant is what’s called a hydrofluorocarbon. Well that’s a very powerful greenhouse gas, it’s 1300 times more powerful on a pound for pound basis than carbon dioxide. The more you can do simply to cut down the leakage rate, the better off you're going to be in terms of global warming emissions.

LOBET: But opponents say sealing up refrigerant just doesn't get very far toward the required reductions. They insist this is a mileage regulation and argue it will make no appreciable difference in global warming. Recently a public relations group has been poking fun at the regulations with radio ads featuring a character they call Squeezy the Climate Clown.


LOBET: Some people believe that even if the rule is challenged and struck down, drafting this 250 page document was a useful exercise. The plan could find its way to Congress, and perhaps be absorbed into legislation to address climate change being proposed by Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain. Again, Lynn Edgerton.

EDGERTON: What they've done is they’ve got a blueprint for how we could, as a nation, reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Well that's pretty terrific.

LOBET: Most observers doubt the automotive manufacturers will present a united front if there is a lawsuit. How many car companies are on the list of plaintiffs makes little legal difference. But it may provide a peek into the car companies' marketing calculations, a snapshot of how politically acceptable it is nowadays to oppose an effort to address global warming.

For Living On Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet

[MUSIC: “A Chronicle of Easy Failures-Part 2” THE DEAD TEXAN (Kranky – 2004)]



California Air Resources Board

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers


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