LETTER FROM WASHINGTON | DANA WILKIE
Making the tough harder

June 18, 2007

The business of getting federal approval for states to enact certain laws was tough enough. Now along come Detroit automakers and Virginia's coal industry, who seem bent on making it even harder.

California is struggling to get Washington's go-ahead to enforce a state law for limiting greenhouse gas emissions from cars in the Golden State.

If you believe California's governor, attorney general and two U.S. senators, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has deliberately dragged its feet. They say Bush's EPA is loath to lay more regulatory burdens on the auto industry, but also reluctant to publicly quash California's groundbreaking plan to address global warming.

Perhaps the EPA won't need to make any decision that might damage the Bush administration image.

That's because the White House now has an unusual political ally in Rep. John Dingell, the Michigan Democrat who wants to protect a key constituent – the auto industry – from new regulations at state and federal levels. And then there's Rep. Rick Boucher, the Virginia Democrat who has his state's coal industry to protect.

SNUFFING THE STANDARDS

Boucher and Dingell have placed in the House draft alternative fuels bill a provision that would all but kill California's plan.

Their language, down at the bottom of Section 102, prohibits the EPA from giving California the waiver it needs for its tougher regulations. Even if the EPA wanted to. Which it probably doesn't, but that's beside the point.


 

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In a letter explaining his rationale to House colleagues, Dingell argues that the EPA and states should not regulate greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles because the U.S. Energy Department already regulates mileage standards. He says limiting emissions is merely a backdoor attempt to regulate mileage.

In a letter to Boucher sent last Wednesday, Schwarzenegger and the governors of seven other states complained that the bill would deny states' rights to adopt their own emissions standards.

“Our states are at the forefront of the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and our nation's dependence on carbon-based fuels,” reads the letter, whose signers claim to represent more than one-third of the automobile market. “Not only does this bill deny our right to adopt California's vehicle emissions standards, it eliminates the EPA's regulatory authority over greenhouse gases as a pollutant.”

PELOSI IN A BIND

The move by Boucher and Dingell doesn't sit well with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the San Francisco Democrat who sides with her state's effort to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. But Dingell is reportedly waving a carrot before the speaker, offering her a national victory in signing up automakers to carbon controls across the country if she will cave on California's quest to write its own emissions regulations.

Dingell's proposed deal appears to reflect the auto industry's recognition that it can no longer beat efforts to increase Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards. Democrats are seeking in a draft of the House energy bill to increase CAFE standards to 36 miles per gallon for cars by 2022 and to 30 miles per gallon for light trucks by 2025. The Senate version of the bill would raise fuel economy standard for all cars, truck and SUVs by 10 miles per gallon over 10 years – or from 25 to 35 miles per gallon by model year 2020, and an additional 4 percent increase annually until 2030.

Apparently, throwing tougher California greenhouse gas emission regulations on top of that is too much for the industry to swallow.

This is a tough one for Pelosi, who has made the fight against global warming a priority, but who is also aiming to pass a major energy reform bill by July 4.

The talks have been so contentious betweenDingell, Boucher and Pelosi that a scheduled hearing on the energy bill was canceled last week, with no date given for when it might come up again.

Dana Wilkie is a Washington-based correspondent for Copley News Service and a longtime observer of California politics and social issues.

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