A clash over California's greenhouse gas waiver request

Feb. 1, 2008
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) did not hide her displeasure with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen L. Johnson at a Jan. 24 hearing.

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) did not hide her displeasure as she opened a Jan. 24 hearing on Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen L. Johnson's refusal to grant California and 14 other states authority to impose tougher greenhouse gas controls on motor vehicles.

"In my many years in the House and in the Senate, I have never seen such disregard by an agency head for Congress and for the committee with responsibility for oversight of his agency," she said. Four more states are moving toward adopting California's standards, Boxer added. "All together, those 19 states represent more than 152 million Americans, a majority of the US population, she said.

In his prepared statement, Johnson noted that the federal agency had granted numerous previous waivers to California involving pollutants which primarily affected local and regional air quality. Greenhouse gases are "fundamentally global in nature," he maintained.

Congress considered amendments to Title II of the Clean Air Act in the fall of 2007 concerning greenhouse gas emissions regulations with respect to both vehicles and fuels, but it did not make the proposals part of the energy bill it passed on Dec. 18 which US President George W. Bush signed into law a day later, Johnson continued.

'Common sense'

It did substantially strengthen fuel economy standards for cars and light duty trucks nationwide, an approach that EPA's administrator prefers in this case. "I just think it is common sense," he indicated.

Three governors who testified (Martin O'Malley of Maryland, Jim Douglas of Vermont and Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania) opposed Johnson's decision. But Douglas Halland, member services director in the California Assembly's Republican Caucus, called it "a reasoned response to a process that has been allowed to spin out of control in California."

The United States became a signatory nation to the 1997 Kyoto Protocols in 1998 but there has been no action to ratify the treaty since then, which has distressed several national environmental organizations, he noted.

Environmental 'bank-shot'

"These groups have taken their message to states and municipalities urging 'local' action since Washington has not committed us to the requirements of the protocols. As a result, California has become the 'bank-shot' around Washington's perceived inability to take action," Halland testified.

Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox conceded that there are instances where federal laws shouldn't preempt more aggressive state regulation. But he added that global climate change can't be solved by focusing on automobiles, a single source of less than a third of US greenhouse gases and 7% of such emissions worldwide.

The proposed waiver also doesn't analyze potential costs, he said. "Allowing California, and the other states that adopt its regulations, to impose what would become the de facto national standard contravenes principals of federalism and undermines the possibility for our nation to speak and act with one voice in addressing this global problem," Cox said.

Boxer disagreed. Following the hearing, she and 17 cosponsors introduced a bill to overturn Johnson's decision.

Contact Nick Snow at [email protected].