California Dreaming

Photo by mj*laflaca

In 2002 the National Academy of Sciences wrote a report suggesting a modest raise in new car fuel efficiency – from 28 miles per gallon to around 32 – was justified. The Bush Administration ignored this finding. A few years later it thumbed its nose at the environmental community by dissolving the “Partnership for a new Generation of Vehicles,” a joint government-auto industry initiative to put a super fuel-efficient, low-emissions diesel car on the road by the end of this decade. As if that weren’t enough, the Bush Administration has constantly opposed higher fuel taxes, ruling out an important step for reducing what the president calls our ‘addiction’ to oil. I must say that it’s strange that after repeatedly acknowledging the current energy problem he has so passively ignored or actively obstructed almost every effort to find a solution.

So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise yesterday when the EPA announced that it opposes California’s 2002 initiative to regulate CO2, a move that will once again put off the reckoning this country has with oil and carbon. Since this initiative in its original form has been law in California since 2002, it’s goals are no surprise to the Administration or automobile manufacturers. They’ve had roughly five years and little to show; perhaps instead of hiring the engineers to make their cars comply with the law, the auto industry hired the lawyers to take the law down.

Let’s recall that California has a strong history of early adoption: it began regulating criteria pollutants and car emissions systems in the 1960s, with the US government finally following its lead. In 1977 California led the way again, placing efficiency standards on new electronic appliances, which were opposed a few years later by President Reagan who didn’t want states to set their own standards. Ultimately Reagan adopted the California standards for the entire country because they were smart and made sense, and the appliance industry preferred one strong standard to a hodge podge of state regulations.

That’s the excuse that the Bush Administration is using now: that it doesn’t want “a confusing patchwork of state rules.” But rather than creating an accelerated national standard to catch up with California, the EPA is essentially pulling California down so that it stays in line with a lower and less advanced national standard that takes longer to kick into force.

While the Energy Bill the President just signed will indeed promulgate national standards, these may not reach their full impact on new cars until 2020, which means we wont actually see its effect until nearly 2035 when the majority of the low-efficient cars produced before 2020 will be off the road. Heck, my children will be nearing retirement age by then – aren’t we waiting too long?

By contrast, California’s initiative, which has the support of 17 other states representing 45 percent of the American auto market, aims to cut vehicles’ green house gas emissions per mile by 30 percent between 2009 and 2016. The new energy bill will only cut emissions per mile by 25 percent over a far longer time period.

It seems to me that the California initiative is the best opportunity we have to reduce CO2 emissions by the transport sector. The California initiative would also jump-start the process of creating low-emissions cars for the rest of the country, since car manufacturers will be required to start producing these vehicles if they want a slice of California’s lucrative auto market. Plus many of the key technologies are already installed on some models and makes, meaning that we already have the technology but we’re not using as we should be.

Do we really need to wait for a meltdown of an icecap? Instead, the California initiative should be welcomed by all as a preliminary step towards making all new cars a bit smaller, a bit lighter, and a lot more efficient.

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