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California’s Vehicle Emissions Fight Continues a 50-Year Struggle

Felicity Barringer
Sep 18 2019

California’s resistance to federal plans loosening vehicle emissions standards is nothing new. Over the decades, the state has fought repeatedly to stay in the forefront of pollution controls.

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When the Smog Rolled In Traffic on the Hollywood Freeway near Ventura Boulevard in the spring of 1972, left. Right, downtown Los Angeles in 1973. Gene Daniels, US Environmental Protection Agency via the National Archives
 

Update, September 18, 2019

In a tweet this morning, President Trump announced his administration was revoking California’s 52-year-old authority to set its own vehicle emission standards. The reason: “To produce far less expensive cars for the consumer, while at the same time making the cars substantially SAFER," the tweet said.

This grant of authority, or waiver, was originally awarded in 1967 and renewed by the 1970 Clean Air Act. It allows the state, and about a dozen others that chose to follow its lead, to establish more stringent emission standards than the Environmental Protection Agency’s. These states comprise the market for about one third of all cars sold in the United States, so California rules became the de-facto nationwide standard. Automakers do not design vehicles for different standards.

In July, California’s air regulators struck a deal with four major automobile companies that slightly curbs their existing mandate but ensures that they will only have to meet one emission standard. Ford, Honda, Volkswagen of America, and BMW North America had negotiated for weeks in secret. The California rule had required automakers meet a 54.5 miles per gallon average fleet economy by 2025. The compromise cut that to about 51 mpg by 2026. The Justice Department has opened an antitrust investigation into the companies that made the deal.

By Felicity Barringer

California has been here before, more than half a century ago. As was true then, forces in Washington, D.C. want to loosen emission requirements and strip California of its ability to impose tough standards for vehicle emissions, and once again, California officials are fighting back.

Smog Debate Echoes in Climate Change Concerns

Today, the issue goes beyond the cleaner but still polluted air around Los Angeles and throughout the Central Valley — to greenhouse gases that exacerbate climate change.

The parallels are striking. In the 1960s and 70s, at issue was the smog-laden air in and around Los Angeles, and California’s use of emerging science to pioneer new regulatory controls. Today, the issue goes beyond the cleaner — but still polluted — air around Los Angeles and throughout the Central Valley to combatting greenhouse gases that exacerbate climate change. Change that, in turn, harms air quality by supercharging wildfires that have devoured millions of acres and shrouded large parts of the state in choking smoke.

Ozone levels, then and now, are one obvious parallel. Concentrations of the gas, which is generally emitted by both vehicles and industry, have improved fivefold since 1980 in eight southern California air basins. Nonetheless, those eight basins are still on the American Lung Association’s most recent list of the 10 worst in the country.  David D. Parrish, a scientist working as a consultant on atmospheric chemistry, estimates it will take more than three decades before these basins meet national standards.


California Cities Still Stand Out Nationally

Most Ozone-Polluted Cities in U.S., 2018

Rank Urban Area State(s)
1 Los Angeles-Long Beach California
2 Bakersfield California
3 Visalia-Porterville-Hanford California
4 Fresno-Madera California
5 Sacramento-Roseville California
6 San Diego-Carlsbad California
7 Modesto-Merced California
8 Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale Arizona
9 Redding-Red Bluff California
10 New York-Newark NY, NJ, CT, PA

Source: State of the Air Report, American Lung Association


At an Environmental Protection Agency hearing in Fresno last Monday, Mary Nichols, who chairs California’s Air Resources Board, said that Fresno and Los Angeles are “ground zero for the most stubbornly persistent violations of air standards in the nation.” And the air quality is deteriorating — southern California had 87 straight days of smoggy air this summer. It’s been two decades since it saw a stretch of ozone violations like that. Dr. Parrish said that without the more stringent controls demanded by California, “there’s a very real possibility that total concentration [of ozone] will creep up.”


Miles Yet to Go The Los Angeles skyline in May 2016.   Maciek Lulko via Flickr


Once Again, Cost Is a Defense for Opponents of Pollution Control

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1970 Oldsmobile Toronado.  
 
“General Motors does not at this time know how to get production vehicles down to the emission levels that your bill would require for 1975 models.”— E.M. Cole, General Motors Executive, in 1970
Photo: Bull-Doser via Wikimedia Commons

If the air quality arguments for tough rules today mimic those of 1967, so do the arguments for regulatory restraint. “I was distressed to learn that the Senate Public Works Committee has voted approval of an air pollution bill that would require that 1975-model cars have a 90 per cent reduction in emissions from 1970 models,” wrote General Motors’ president E.M. Cole to the Senate in September, 1970. “As ‘you may recall, in our meeting Aug. 25 I stated that General Motors does not at this time know how to get production vehicles down to the emission levels that your bill would require for 1975 models, ” he continued. “Accomplishment of these goals, as far as we now know, simply is not technologically possible within the time frame required.”

Technically, Cole was right, in that it took a few years longer to reach the EPA’s mandate, But it was far from impossible. GM cars eventually met the emission standards of the 1970 Clean Air Act a couple of years later.

When the new federal standards were being proposed, according to a 1973 research paper by Congressional Quarterly, “The Society of Automotive Engineers predicted that,” — at a time when the average car cost less than $5,000 — “catalytic converters could add $860 to the price and operating costs of 1976 models, compared with 1970 models.” But a 2004 study done for the Air Resources Board by Institute of Transportation Studies University of California, Davis found that eight cost analyses showed that, at most, the per-car price increase was half that amount. Like Cole’s prediction, the automotive engineers’ warning was significantly exaggerated.

In another echo, this year, in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao and Andrew Wheeler, acting administrator of the E.P.A., said that freezing the Obama-era federal rule, – which now meets the California standard – would mean lower prices, and they seek to “give consumers greater access to safer, more affordable vehicles, while continuing to protect the environment.”

In 1967, Detroit Sought Unsuccessfully to Bring California to Heel, and a “Waiver” Was Born


Democratic Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, right, with John F. Kennedy around 1961. Wikimedia Commons

The second part of the Trump administration proposal, stripping California of the ability to set tougher emission standards than the Federal government, also mimics what defenders of the auto industry sought to do in 1967. Then, as now, California leaders were fiercely protective of the scientific and regulatory advances. During a 1967 Senate debate, Sen. George Murphy, a California Republican, argued, “the extraordinary and compelling circumstances that have existed in California have prompted the state to move into uncharted areas” of research and regulation. He proposed a waiver, so California could go its own way.

This was anathema to carmakers, who worried that they would have to design vehicles to two different standards — California’s, and the rest of the country’s. Rep. John Dingell, the Michigan Democratic representative who was the carmakers’ man in Congress, proposed an amendment ensuring federal rules would preempt California’s. The Golden state’s congressional delegation fought back with bipartisan solidarity. The waiver was eliminated in a House committee, but overwhelmingly restored by the full house. Gov. Ronald Reagan cheered the “hard work and united front California has presented” in Congress. Now 12 other states align their emission control standards with California’s.

Tom Jorling, a Republican aide to the Senate subcommittee on air and water quality, said that Dingell “basically felt that the automotive industry, whatever they wanted to do, whatever their plans were for producing vehicles were the correct ones. The government had no standing dictating what kinds of vehicles they would produce.”


Bill Lane Center for the American West

State officials remain as resolute about the need for regulatory independence as they were in 1967, during the Air Quality Act debate on the original waiver, or 1970, during the debate over the CLean Air Act. After Monday’s Fresno hearing, Nichols said “We’ll continue to enforce our laws, even if the federal government rolls theirs back.” The standard California and the Obama Administration had agreed to requires cars, trucks and sport utility vehicles to average 36 miles per gallon by 2025. The Trump administration proposes to freeze the standards at the 2020 year model year, cutting about six miles per gallon from the original goal.

Experts believe the changes will not only allow release of far more carbon dioxide, but will likely mean a slow retrenchment in gains made over traditional pollutants, like ozone, a gas formed when sunlight cooks a mixture of volatile organic compounds, (from paint, varnishes, disinfectants and cleaning fluids) and the nitrogen oxides in car emissions. It is a respiratory irritant, is visible as smog — the same kind in the air right outside the Fresno hearing.

“There would be more emissions and a half billion barrels of oil burned that would not otherwise be burned through 2030,” said Stanley Young, a spokesman for California’s Air Resources Board. He added that that would be 5,600 additional tons of smog during the same period.

Public Opinion Again Backs Pollution Efforts

Another echo of the past is the strong reaction of everyday Californians. Back then, Los Angeles residents knew that breathing their air was the equivalent of smoking seven cigarettes a day. As many as 6,000 people joined one demonstration against smog in 1954; a few years later a group called Stamp Out Smog clamored for relief.

A half century later, it is wildfire smoke that is bedeviling California communities. A poll this month by the Public Policy Information Center showed 65 percent of state residents favor the state acting on its own to combat global warming. Two-thirds say that the impact of climate change is already being felt.  And smog remains an issue — dozens of people turned out to testify in Fresno Monday, several with respiratory ailments.

As science in the 1950s showed that motor vehicle emissions cause smog or ground-level ozone, the science of subsequent decades shows the carbon dioxide emitted by motor vehicles causes climate change. These gases are the target of the fuel-efficiency regulations the federal government set in 2012, covering model years through 2025 — the ambitious rules now being scaled back.

In 1967 and 1970, California won in Washington, and when it went to court, it was to defend — successfully — the regulatory requirements it had pioneered. Now, unless there is an agreement with the federal agencies, the state has promised it will be back in court, this time as the plaintiff.

That’s the battle the state has promised if the federal government tries to strip it of independent regulatory authority.

As Nichols, who chairs the Air Resources Board, said in a speech last spring, ”Some issues never seem to die.”

 

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Paul McPherson

Responding to Been There, Done That. California’s Vehicle Emissions Fight Continues a 50-Year Struggle

The solution isn't in reducing the number of cars, as pretty much everyone needs them. Unless a large scale, efficient, cheap and clean public transportation network appears out of thin air, there's no reducing the number of personal vehicles. The idea could be to have clean energy replace the usual combustion engine in these cars; the automotive market's going to undergo a large scale transformation with the generalisation of self driving cars anyways (some other economical sectors, such as real estate, even calculate how it will change their activity and consumer behavior: https://tranio.com/articles/how-self-driving-cars-will-change-the-proper... ) so, since people are going to buy a new type of car anyways, why couldn't it be self driving AND clean?

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Articles Worth Reading: September 29, 2020

Knowing How to Fight the Megafires of Climate Change is the daunting task facing firefighters today. Wildfires are behaving in unprecedented ways and the traditional ways to fight them are proving inadequate. The Yellowstone Fire of 1988 was a harbinger of what is now an annual series of catastrophes. Hotter, drier weather increases the scale, power, and frequency of wildfires, which spawn tornadoes and thunderstorms. Once unheard-of Arctic fires produce large volumes of greenhouse gases; every degree Celsius of temperature rise increases lightning activity by 12 percent. Yale Environment 360

Recycling Helps Rid Us of Forever Plastics? No, Say Some Experts. Much recycled plastic, from yogurt containers to bags and “clamshells,” heads not for a new life but landfills. One former executive told a PBS Frontline investigation that selling the idea of recycling meant they could sell plastic. While all used plastic can be repurposed, it’s expensive to pick it up, sort it, and melt it down. KQED

New Mexico Resists a New License for Nuclear Waste Storage Facility. A New Jersey company wants a 40-year license to build a multi-billion-dollar complex near Carlsbad. It would store up to 8,680 metric tons of uranium, packed into 500 canisters. Future expansion could allow up to 10,000 canisters of spent fuel from nuclear plants around the country. State officials told Nuclear Regulatory Commission that the firm’s analysis is incomplete, the site is geologically unsuitable and environmental justice issues are being ignored. Associated Press

A 37-Year-Old Public Trust Doctrine to Preserve Inland Lakes just got a new look from the Nevada Supreme Court. In the precedent-setting 1983 Mono Lake case, the California Supreme Court ruled that the public trust interest in the water, fish and wildlife of the lake meant diversion of the lake’s tributaries must be controlled. Nevada’s Supreme Court just took a different tack, saying the state could not reshuffle existing rights to the Walker River to protect the receding Walker Lake. Ninth Circuit federal appeals judges had send sent the case to the Nevada court; it’s now headed back to federal court. Las Vegas Sun Nevada Independent

Local Control Was the Hallmark of California’s Groundwater Law, but a new study shows the local plans tend to favor large agribusiness over small farmers. Only about 12 percent of 260 new groundwater sustainability agencies include representatives from tribal groups or small farms not already affiliated with local irrigation districts. Estuary

After Four Decades of Combat Over the Efforts to Drill for Oil Under the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Appear Headed for Success. With the lives and livelihoods of the Indigenous groups of the region at issue, a month ago, the Interior Department cleared the way for bidding on drilling rights. But the voices of the Iñupiat people — some of whom welcome the chance to earn revenue from lands that were once theirs — and the Gwich’in people, for whom the caribou of the region are both a nutrition and cultural linchpin — are seldom heard. A collaboration with of the The Threshold podcast, and the Center for Investigative Reporting. Reveal

Aquariums are Accustomed to Showing the Ocean’s Shallows, Not Its Depths. Now, around the world, they are figuring out how to display the mysterious and remarkable animals of the deep sea. Two years hence, California’s Monterey Bay aquarium hopes to create the first large-scale exhibition of deep sea life and the impact that warming and seabed mining may have on the unseen world. The New York Times

Articles Worth Reading: September 23, 2020

Establishing a New Indigenous Wildfire Task Force is the goal of a California State Senate candidate, Jackie Fielder. As “fire season” becomes increasingly intense, the need for effective fire management practices increases, and Indigenous groups’ knowledge becomes a beacon for forest managers.. Fielder’s plan is based on the Karuk Climate Adaptation Plan, which shows how controlled burns help prevent destructive wildfires. SF Weekly

Recent Fires Destroyed Much of Washington State’s Crucial Sage Grouse Habitat An expert on the birds said that the state’s population of less than 1,000 grouse may have been cut in half as fires burned more than 600,000 acres of forest and sagebrush rangeland this year. Overall, scientists have issued a report showing that grouse populations in nine states have declined 44 percent in five years. Mongabay

Los Angeles Is Working to Turn Recycled Plastic into Pavement and Parking Lots. Three years ago, when China announced it would take no more recycling waste, the federal Energy Department started looking for ways to dispose of the excess piling up in American dumps. The city is working on a project to create asphalt containing recycled plastic and has experimented with the asphalt mix on parking lots and small roads. It is now planning to use it on a major street near Walt Disney Concert Hall. E&E News

The Southwest Is Suffering a Major Bird Die-Off, as thousands of migratory birds have been found dead in recent weeks. The cause of this mass die-off remains unknown, but some theorize that raging western wildfires forced many birds to reroute their migrations, and that exceptionally dry conditions have greatly reduced the presence of insects, birds’ main source of food. Large avian mortality during migration is rare and few instances have been as large as this one. High Country News

Microsoft Has Launched the Second Phase of an Underwater Data Center Experiment , extending work done off the West Coast in 2015 to explore the feasibility of submarine computing. Their Natick Project intended to explore underwater data centers’ potential economic and environmental advantages relative to those on dry land. The findings: a sealed container on the ocean floor could improve overall reliability, given that oxygen and humidity corrode terrestrial centers as they do other modern infrastructure. The team also hopes that offshore data centers could support faster information retrieval over interconnected networks. CMSWire

A “Language Keepers” Podcast Illuminates the Struggle to Keep Indigenous Languages Alive in California. Two centuries ago, as many as 90 languages and 300 dialects were spoken in California. Today only half this number remain. This series explores the current state of four Indigenous languages that are among the most threatened in the world: Tolowa Dee-ni’, Karuk, Wukchumni, and Kawaiisu. It features stories of families and communities across California working to revitalize their Native languages and cultures. Emergence Magazine

Graphics & the West

Where California Grows Its Food

See the most detailed survey ever done of crops and land use in California. It covers nine million acres of land devoted to grapes, alfalfa, cotton, plums, you name it – food for people and animals all over the world. View map »

California's Changing Energy Mix

A look at the energy sources California utilities have used gives us insights into the state’s progress in decarbonizing its electricity supply. In 2015, 35% of total electricity generation (in-state generation plus imported electricity) came from zero-greenhouse-gas sources, which include solar, wind, hydropower, and nuclear. View Graphic »

U.S. Conservation Easements

Conservation easements of various kinds cover more than 22 million acres of land in the United States, according to the National Conservation Easement Database, a public-private partnership. Take a look at our interactive map of nearly every conservation easement, with details on over 130,000 sites. View map »

 

Recent Center News

Nov 17 2020 | ... & the West Blog, ... & the Best | Stories Recommended by the ‘... & the West’ Blog
New effort to speed the first oil leases on Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; light pollution in growing communities lures deer — and the mountain lions that hunt them; a push for a Canadian carbon-offset system; the history of Black cowboys revived with Arizona’s Black rodeo, and more recent environmental stories from around the West.
Nov 17 2020 | Center News
Lane Center associate director moves to Stanford's Office of Community Engagement.
Nov 13 2020 | Center News, Happenings, Research Notes
A Pension Tracker tool newly housed at the Bill Lane Center offers data on public sector debt for pension liabilities with a focus on California