Obama May Clear Way for California Pollution Law

California residents may be able to breathe easier soon. (Photo: Doc Searls/Flickr)

In 2002, California passed a bold law in an urgent attempt to clean up its air. AB 1493 was a milestone bill - the first to acknowledge global warming and the first to require all cars sold in California to meet stringent standards for fuel-efficiency and particulate emissions. The bill was overwhelmingly popular (81% of voters supported it) despite a multi-million dollar marketing campaign paid for by auto manufacturers. Since California represents 10% of total auto sales, the Big 3 along with international manufacturers fought hard, since it would mean retooling their production lines and increasing sticker prices.

As Governor (of the time) Gray Davis said, "Opponents of this bill say the sky is falling, but they said it about unleaded gasoline. They said it about catalytic converters. They said it about seat belts and air bags. The sky is not falling. It's just getting a whole lot cleaner."

The bill passed and environmentalists cheered, but then after many failed attempts by the Association of International Auto Manufacturers to repeal the bill, the Bush administration stepped in. In a reversal of the standard Republican party line of "State's Rights" the administration ruled with the Auto industry by reinterpreting the federal fuel efficiency standards to represent both a minimum and a maximum standard. The standards were first introduced in 1978 to protect the consumer by providing a minimum fuel efficiency.

According to Governor Schwarzenegger, the Bush ruling was unlawful, preventing the State from protecting its citizens. Schwarzenegger sent a letter to President Obama asking for the ruling to be overturned. Obama co-sponsored a bill with Senator Barbara Boxer last year to approve a waiver for California to restore the law, and it is expected he and his EPA pick Lisa Jackson will act quickly. Last week Jackson told Boxer, "If I'm confirmed, I will immediately revisit the waiver."

13 other states have attempted to pursue similar environmental standards but have been blocked by the Bush administration. If Obama overturns the Bush ruling, it will signal a major change in the federal government's position on State rights when it comes to environmental policy.