State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Emissions standards to get Californicated

Less than a week into his presidency, Barack Obama is poised to take his first step on the long road to averting climate catastrophe. The Times reports that Obama will allow California to raise automobile emissions standards for greenhouse gases above the national level. (OK, technically Obama has only ordered the EPA to review California’s waiver application, but I feel comfortable saying that the waiver will be granted.)

This is HUGE news, for two reasons. One, raising the emissions standards likely means an increase in mileage standards, which means cars will be more efficient in terms of gasoline consumption AND the emission of greenhouse gases. Two, California is the country’s biggest auto market (I believe), and 13 other states are ready to adopt the higher emissions standards. Car companies will either have to make two kinds of cars – a less efficient one and a more efficient one for California et. al. – or they’ll introduce the more efficient car into all 50 states.

The move by Obama was widely expected, following years of the Bush administration refusing to grant the waiver. According to The Times, Obama will also expedite the promulgation of new federal vehicle efficiency standards, which, even when implemented, will lag behind California’s by several years.

an EPA waiver.
Arnold gets his wish: an EPA waiver.

A little legal background: the national Clean Air Act Sec. 209(a) prohibits states from adopting emissions standards that are stricter than the federal government’s.  However, Sec. 209(b) allows for a waiver to be granted to California, which has some of the worst air pollution problems in the country, so long as stricter emissions standards meet “compelling and extraordinary conditions.” Now here’s an interesting question: are higher GHG emissions standards necessitated by “compelling and extraordinary conditions”? After all, Sec. 209(b) was written with local environmental problems in mind, i.e. smog, whereas higher emissions standards in California (or the entire United States, for that matter) won’t make a dent in global warming. But what am I talking about – Obama was president of the Harvard Law Review. I’m sure he can find a way around the statutory language. And if California is granted a waiver, other states are permitted to raise their standards to the California level.

One more thing: The Times is being a bit misleading when it says the waiver allows for higher fuel efficiency standards. Technically, states are still preempted from adopting stricter miles-per-gallon standards. But, for a variety of reasons I won’t go into here, higher emissions standards for GHGs will likely force car companies to make vehicles with higher mpgs. Pretty clever, huh?

Columbia campus skyline with text Columbia Climate School Class Day 2024 - Congratulations Graduates

Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

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David James
15 years ago

We all want change for the climate, and cleaner air in particular. I live in SoCal and the air can get filthy looking. BUT these new cafe standards on the auto industry can really hurt.

GM and Chrysler are already in big trouble. The cost to retool and make an affordable car that gets 35 mpg is not easy with the union contracts they currently have. This is also why it would have been better to let GM go bankrupt than to give them taxpayer money.