California’s vehicle emissions fight continues a 50-year struggle

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 greenhouse gases that exacerbate climate change. (Photo credit: Gene Daniels / EPA)

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.

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

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.

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."

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

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

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."

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."

This article was originally published by The Bill Lane Center for the American West.

Felicity Barringer

The Bill Lane Center for the American West
febarr [at] stanford (p) edu

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