EPA Holds The Key To Clean Cars

hold up your car key photo

Hold up your car key, photo montage. Image credit:Sierra Club Flickr upload site.

I'm a 40-something who doesn't own a car. I live in San Francisco and manage to get around quite well using the various public transportation options available to me here.

Still, I'm on the edge of my seat about the March 5 hearing slated by the Environmental Protection Agency as it considers whether to reverse the Bush administration's decision to block California and 14 other states from imposing auto-pollution standards that are stricter than those set by Congress. President Obama favors granting the waiver, so this hearing is a real step toward getting us there, and potentially curbing massive amounts of global-warming pollution since these states comprise 40% of the auto market. Public comment is being taken through April 6. (Check out the Sierra Club's photo petition on the subject--and then get out your keys and camera!)Plus, the EPA's own website says the agency intends to grant the waiver unless they find that California:
--was arbitrary and capricious in its finding that its standards are in the aggregate at least as protective of public health and welfare as applicable federal standards;
--does not need such standards to meet compelling and extraordinary conditions; or
--has proposed standards not consistent with Section 202(a) of the Clean Air Act.

If the result is what I hope for, I'll click my heels together in the air like the guy in that old Toyota ad.

There's a fascinating back story on this issue that dates back to the 60's -- and an action by the State of California.

Let me set the stage: While most federal environmental laws include measures that allow states to set more stringent standards, Section 209(a) of the Clean Air Act explicitly forbids states from doing so.

However, my friends, there is a loophole. Section 209(b) says the EPA administrator shall "waive application of this section…to any State which has adopted standards for the control of emissions from new motor vehicles or new motor vehicle engines prior to March 30, 1966 if the State determines that the State standards will be, in the aggregate, at least as protective of public health and welfare as applicable Federal standards."

Bingo. California is the lone state that adopted its own standards before that date, so it can apply for the waiver. And it has -- every year since 1967, and the EPA has granted the waiver each time. In 2002, California passed AB 1493 – aka the Pavley bill, named after its sponsor Rep. Frank Pavley – which would impose a 30% reduction in tailpipe emissions by 2016, requiring automakers to increase fuel economy to 35.7 miles per gallon by 2016 and 42.5 by 2020. California just needed that EPA waiver to call it good. But then EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson denied the waiver, against the advice of his own staff.

This is the decision that the Obama EPA is reconsidering.

You may be thinking, "So California met that March 1966 deadline specified in the Clean Air Act and is eligible for the waiver, but how do the other 14 states get to climb on board?" Another section of the Act says that states with an EPA-approved State Implementation Plan can also seek a waiver if its standards are identical to the California standards, and the standards give at least two-years lead time for a particular model year. (The other states seeking waivers are Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. (I'm proud to say that the Sierra Club has worked very hard over the year to bring more states into this distinguished circle.)

If you want to dig deeper into the history and status of the California waiver, there's actually a great explanation of it on the Sierra Club’s Clean Cars website and on the EPA's website

In the meantime, grab your keys -- car keys, house keys, the key to your heart, whichever -- snap a photo and add it to our photo petition. Help us send the message: EPA Holds the Key to Clean Cars. If you'd rather submit your own comments to the EPA, instructions for how to do so can be found here.

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