In the less-than-glamorous burg of Sacramento sits a dull-sounding state institution whose unusual power derives from long-ago air quality problems in the sparkling city of Los Angeles.
California, uniquely among US states, has the liberty to draft its own rules for air pollution. That’s because, once upon a time, smog was so bad in Los Angeles that Hollywood producers could barely see across their swimming pools. That would not do. So it was that Governor Ronald Reagan established the Air Resources Board in 1967, three years before Congress established the Environmental Protection Agency and four years before it passed the Clean Air Act. California received a waiver allowing it to follow the air quality rules it had already established, a waiver that persists to this day. Twelve other states abide by California’s standards—giving the board remarkable power, for a subnational body, to effect policy and infuriate industry. The auto industry especially.
In 2009 the Obama administration—taking advantage of the Great Recession and the near-collapse of the US automobile business—established fuel efficiency standards meant to keep billions of tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. The car companies didn’t like it but, groveling quite pitifully at the time, they could scarcely say no.
Now Obama’s out and Trump is in. At industry’s urging, the EPA under Scott Pruitt is reviewing the Obama standards, presumably with an extreme prejudice toward defanging, denuding, and dismantling them. But California doesn’t have to go along. Neither do the states that follow California’s regulations. This has the CEO of an auto-industry umbrella group claiming that “We all have a common stake in working together,” by which he means that California should loosen its standards just like Washington will. It won’t.
Couldn’t the waiver be rescinded? It could, but—as reported by Hiroko Tabuchi of The New York Times—California could go to court to keep it. Both the EPA and the automakers seem leery of taking that path. So for now, states representing one-third of the nation’s vehicle market will continue to follow air pollution policies set in a low-key town at the confluence of the Feather, American, and Sacramento rivers.
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