Thursday, December 20, 2007

Calling Solomon

Since the passage of California's AB 32 legislation establishing a cap on greenhouse gas emissions, the state has been locked in a struggle with the federal Environmental Protection Agency over the implementation of its provisions on tailpipe emissions. The Supreme Court ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA was expected to pave the way for California to obtain the Clean Air Act waiver it sought, to regulate automotive CO2 emissions--and effectively fuel economy--at the state level. Yesterday, however, the EPA denied California's petition, setting up a court fight that could well find its way back to the Supreme Court, unless the 2008 Presidential Election resolves the matter, first. Both sides are at least half-right, and I don't envy those who will be called to discern where the greatest service to the national interest lies. In the end, I believe California will prevail.

California's argument for the waiver is straightforward. The Supreme Court has ruled that CO2 is a pollutant, and California has been granted waivers in the past to regulate pollutants more stringently than the country as a whole. Moreover, California's greenhouse gas emissions are large enough to matter on a global scale, and the state's elected representatives believe they have a mandate from their constituents to address those emissions aggressively and comprehensively. Failure to do so would contribute to the risk of adverse outcomes from climate change in California, with some pointing to reduced precipitation and coastal erosion as early indicators of such damage.

But while my heart is with California in this matter, my head is with the EPA. Even if we accept that CO2 is now recognized as a pollutant--the logic of this escapes me, but I concede my minority status--it still does not result in the kind of direct local impacts that provided the self-evident justification for granting the state's past waiver requests concerning regulation of the "criteria pollutants" that affect air quality and produce smog. Climate change is a global problem, the local ramifications of which cannot yet be predicted reliably. With the US struggling to maintain its competitive edge in a global marketplace for goods and services, should we really desire the further Balkanization of auto and fuel standards?

Both sets of arguments are legitimate and compelling. Where I believe the EPA's case fails is in the implied responsibility of turning down California's request. If there were a similarly comprehensive set of federal greenhouse gas regulations in place or waiting in the wings--even if it was not as stringent--the EPA would be right to ask California to follow the federal government's lead. Yet the energy bill provisions cited by the Administrator in defense of his decision don't constitute such a plan. Unless and until something like the Lieberman-Warner Bill, S.2191, passes, the closest thing we have to a national greenhouse gas regulation is an array of voluntary programs. And as the Washington Post pointed out, a list of states accounting for nearly half the nation's cars has lined up behind California, rather than the EPA.

There's an old saying, "Lead, follow, or get out of the way." The last year has seen the publication of an impressive collection of reports on the science of climate change and on the economic consequences of ignoring the problem or tackling it head-on. These reports, including three from the same Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that shared this year's Nobel Peace Prize with Mr. Gore, underline the urgency of the issue and provide the real underpinnings of California's waiver request. On these grounds and with the precedent of Mass. v. EPA, I believe the high court will ultimately find in California's favor, but time is wasting in the interim.

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