Despite cries from the automobile lobby
and the probability of an ensuing legal skirmish, California
regulators voted unanimously last week in favor of codifying the
most stringent and comprehensive auto emission standard global
manufacturers have ever seen. As mandated by the California state
Air Resources Board, by 2016, auto manufacturers will be required
to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other harmful gases
attributed to global warming by 30 percent. This landmark
legislation will hopefully mark the start of the nationwide
trend.

Beth Dykstra

As a dramatic departure from the relatively weak fuel efficiency
standards at the national level, California’s regulation
intends to serve as a model for similar state-level energy reform
initiatives. With about one-fifth of the national auto market, the
sheer size of its consumer base allows California state policy to
snowball into larger, national-scale reforms. As a result of the
new red tape, auto manufacturers will face two options: produce
separate low-emission cars and trucks for California or streamline
production to produce solely low-emission models. As if
California’s market share is not daunting enough, New York
and six other Eastern states have pledged to uphold the new policy
in their states, leaving auto manufacturers with little breathing
room.

Given what is at stake, the auto industry will not accept the
new rules without a fight. Auto manufacturers are expected to file
a lawsuit holding that only the federal government has the
authority to pass rules pertaining to fuel economy. California
regulators and environmentalists alike have countered that states
have the right to set their own air pollution standards. A senior
policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council asserts
that “California has the clear authority to regulate carbon
dioxide as an air pollutant.” The auto industry’s
contention that the theory of global warming is still a “big
if,” is a position eerily reminiscent of the tobacco
industry’s assertion that smoking was not linked to lung
cancer.

While the auto manufacturers maintain that the new standards
would raise the cost of new vehicles by as much as $3,000, the Air
Resources Board estimates this figure to be closer to $1,000.
Nevertheless, fuel efficiency increases in the new vehicles will
likely save consumers cash at the pumps in the long term. With oil
prices soaring to above $50 a barrel this week, cutting back on oil
consumption is crucial.

In an example of leadership failure, responsibility for
promoting curbing auto emissions has been effectively diffused
among individuals and agencies, both public and private. Consumers,
with the mindset that their individual emissions matter little in
the grand scheme of things, continue buying gas-guzzling sport
utility vehicles. Driven by profits, the auto industry has
continued to sell these cars and trucks with low fuel economy
standards. For its part, the federal government balked on the Kyoto
Protocol and has taken a passive stance on global warming under
President Bush. The new California regulations should provide the
much overdue jump-start that the federal government and auto
industry have needed. The national impact of the California
regulations may well foreshadow a shift towards friendlier
environmental policy.

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