Focus On: California, Car Emissions, and CARB (Nope, it’s Not a Bread)

Should I be worried that while recently reading a 1967 Congressional report on air pollution, I wept?

House Report #90–728 assesses the effectiveness of the Clean Air Act, which had been enacted four years earlier with the goal of empowering the EPA to regulate air pollution. In general, legislators were pleased: “All of the major activities authorized by the Clean Air Act and the amendments of 1965 and 1966 are essential and must be continued,” they write.

However. The “fact remains that greatly accelerated efforts are needed if the Nation is to overtake the rising tide of air pollution,” the report notes. The legislators urge additional funding for and education around issues of air pollution and also devote several pages to addressing why such measures are critical to public health. The “Need for Legislation” section opens with a crisp assertion — “There can be no doubt that air pollution is a threat to the health and well-being of the American people” — and goes on to cite three pages of historical accounts, scientific and medical data, and testimony from such experts as the Surgeon General to prove the point.

Science! Reality! Federal intervention on behalf of public health! Congress, completing a task! You see why I’m sobbing?

[brief break to compose self]

Half a century later, the picture is… mixed. Yes, the federal government has made notable strides in combating air pollution (more on these below). However, our car-crazy culture is exacting a price. According to Yale Environment 360, the US transportation sector (cars, trucks, planes, trains, and boats) now surpasses the electric power sector as the top emitter of CO2, at 1.9 billion tons annually. One-fifth of these emissions, according to the NRDC, come from cars and light trucks. So when it comes to air quality, auto emissions are a Big, Dirty Deal.

And which state has the most cars on the road? California, by far, with almost 15 million automobile registrations in 2017 (as compared to Texas, next on the list with 8 million). So it’s fitting that many of the most substantial advances in air cleanliness and fuel efficiency have originated not through national leadership, but via California.

A Hazy History

In fact, the state stumbled into its pioneering position by necessity. The first example of “modern smog” was recorded in Los Angeles on July 1943, when an acrid haze smothered the city; visibility was only three blocks, and people thought they were under gas attack. It took scientists almost a decade to pinpoint automobile exhaust as the culprit. Mary Nichols, Chair of the California Air Resources Board (CARB), remembers 1960s Los Angeles glowing “Day-Glo orange” from car pollution.

Faced with the growing crisis of dirty air, Republican Governor Ronald Reagan in 1967 created the clean-air organization that ultimately became CARB. The state maintained its strict regulatory standards and continued to make groundbreaking reductions in tailpipe emissions. But, like guns, air pollution does not respect state lines, and in 1970, Nixon — Nixon! — signed into law an amended and strengthened national Clean Air Act. Among its provisions was a waiver allowing California to continue to issue its own, stringent emissions standards via CARB — an acknowledgment that California had been at the business of smog reduction longer than the federal government itself.

The result is that California has its own sort of mini-EPA if the EPA were still actually protecting the environment. Per CARB’s website:

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) is charged with protecting the public from the harmful effects of air pollution and developing programs and actions to fight climate change. From requirements for clean cars and fuels to adopting innovative solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, California has pioneered a range of effective approaches that have set the standard for effective air and climate programs for the nation and the world.

Manufacturers Face a Choice

US automobile makers can choose to manufacture according to federal emissions standards. But if they want to sell cars in the largest US market, California — or in Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington state, or Washington DC, all of which have adopted CARB’s stricter-than-federal emissions standards — they’ll need to manufacture according to California rules.

And automobile companies love rules. They work on years-long production schedules, within broad timeframes, and cannot simply turn on a dime. Uncertainty and regulatory ambiguity are their bêtes noires. Many car companies choose to build cars according to the stricter CARB standards rather than face a patchwork of regulations across the country.

In 2012, President Obama upped the ante: he challenged carmakers to increase the fuel economy of cars and light trucks to 54.5mpg by 2025, almost doubling the rate of fuel efficiency. Major automakers, already accustomed to building according to CARB standards, set to work honing their manufacturing processes to comply with this new, more stringent standard.

Then Came…

…Trump, who, in his never-ending quest to despoil our planet in general and undo every Obama-era triumph in particular, has been trying since attaining office (pozdravlyayu!) to freeze fuel-economy rates at their current average of 37mpg. Never mind that according to the NRDC, the freeze would cost drivers billions of dollars at the pump, and would be equivalent to increasing the number of cars on the road by one-third. The administration asserts with full confidence that people will drive less in lower-fuel-economy cars, thereby lowering the number of highway deaths.

No, really.

You might think car manufacturers would be happy to stay put at old fuel-economy levels… but you’d be wrong. They had already begun incorporating new technology into production lines to comply with Obama’s directive; dropping their production of lower-emission cars midstream would be ruinously costly and inefficient, a point automakers made as they lobbied Trump, begging him to reconsider the freeze (crazy, right? big industry begging government to raise fuel efficiency!). Trump rejected their pleas. The man has a legacy to consider, okay?

Automakers Go Rogue

Stymied by the feds, major auto manufacturers turned to their old friend, California. Last week, Honda, BMW, Ford, and Volkswagen sidestepped the Trump administration completely and signed an agreement with CARB agreeing to raise new cars’ average fuel standard to 50mpg by 2026 — not as radical as Obama’s proposal, but much healthier than Trump’s freeze.

Naturally, Trump’s EPA plans to eviscerate CARB by revoking California’s waiver, an attack that Harvard Law Professor Noah Feldman thinks is almost certainly illegal. “The Clean Air Act expressly says that California must be granted the waiver if its emissions rules are ‘at least as protective of public health and welfare’ as the federal government’s,” he writes. “That means anything more protective must be granted.” He also points out that revocation falls under Congress’ power, not the president’s, an annoyance that may only inflame the president further, like a bull with a red flag. Stay tuned.

State Elections Matter

CARB comprises 16 members: 12 experts appointed by the Governor (reminder: we elect our governors), two members appointed by the state Senate and Assembly (reminder: we elect our legislators), and one state Senator and one Assemblyperson (ditto).

If you live in one of the other “CARB states,” your elected officials also did the right thing by adopting the stricter emissions standards.

Not to put too fine a point on it, our state officials wield enormous power over how we live and die. It’s up to us to vote the bad ones out, and vote in those who will protect our health and our environment. Left unchecked, the current federal government will bequeath us a world of orange haze and flaming rivers. We can stop them… state by state. See you at the ballot box.

– Juliet Eastland


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