Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Tell California No

One of the most eagerly-awaited environmental decisions of the year is currently in the hands of the new Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. California has requested a waiver under the Clean Air Act to regulate CO2 as a pollutant from cars, based on the Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts v. EPA that confirmed that the EPA had the authority to regulate greenhouse gases. When I examined this issue in late 2007, I expected California to prevail in its request, and I still do. That doesn't mean, however, that there are not compelling reasons why it shouldn't. I can't think of a better signal the Obama Administration could send concerning the new federal direction on climate change than telling California, "Thanks for keeping the torch burning, but we'll take it from here."

There are two good reasons to turn down California's request to regulate tailpipe emissions, which would result in a de facto standard for Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) much more aggressive than the federal standard enacted by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. The first reason is unlikely to gain traction, because frankly this boat has already sailed. I mention it only because I still believe it has merit. Simply put, based on engineering principles, the Supreme Court was wrong to designate CO2 as a pollutant, and any extension of the Clean Air Act (CAA) to cover it is based on a misunderstanding of the origins of this greenhouse gas.

Although it's widely accepted that CO2 emissions are a primary cause of climate change, that doesn't make CO2 a pollutant. Too much CO2 is bad, but then so is too much water, if you are drowning or standing downstream of an approaching flood. That doesn't make water a pollutant. CO2 emissions are not the result of a fuel impurity or a byproduct of combustion in engines and boilers, like the smog-forming pollutants the CAA was designed to regulate. It is a fundamental, inescapable consequence of all combustion and many natural processes, and the vast majority of it is recycled into plants and rocks, or dissolved in the oceans. The steady accumulation of the small remaining excess in the atmosphere creates the central problem in global warming. Unfortunately, we can't eliminate CO2 from car exhaust with filters, catalytic converters, additives, or more intensive fuel refining, but only by changing the way cars use energy, and by changing the way we use cars. That goes well beyond any reasonable interpretation of the intent of the CAA, though I suspect this point is no longer of any concern to policy makers.

What ought to be of great concern to policy makers is another, more pragmatic reason to turn down California's request, and by extension that of the thirteen states that wish to opt in to the California standard. Climate change is a global problem, and the science of predicting its local consequences is still in its infancy. Managing our greenhouse gas emissions must ultimately be addressed globally. Until that happens, they need to be tackled at the largest level of aggregation available, because the consequences of climate change will affect us all, directly or indirectly, and because the industries and consumption patterns involved in reducing emissions are so fundamental to the economy. Changing them will require resources and innovation on a national scale. I know that California is larger than many countries--I used to trot this point out regularly when I lived there--but that does not alter the nature of its connection to and interdependence with the rest of the country. In particular, while California has a few bits and pieces of the US car industry, in the form of an assembly plant or two, some parts suppliers, and design centers, the primary impact of its regulation of CO2 would be felt not in the Golden State, but in states such as Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Alabama and North Carolina. The effect on interstate commerce and the absence of overridingly unique local impacts should put regulation of CO2 explicitly within the purview of the federal government, not the various states.

A little more than a year ago I reluctantly conceded that California's desire to regulate CO2 from cars was justified by application of the notion of "lead, follow, or get out of the way," in the absence of any immediate prospect of the federal government's taking that lead with respect to climate change. The election has drastically altered those circumstances. It is inconceivable that the Obama Administration, with strong majorities in the Congress, will fail to enact sweeping federal measures to address climate change urgently and aggressively. It looks very likely that we'll have cap & trade within the next year or two, and if tighter CAFE standards are part of the solution--though I remain skeptical of their efficacy without a strong price signal to drive consumer behavior--they should cover the whole country, not just a few states. If we want Detroit to invest in emissions-reducing technologies, then it must have a national market for them. It ought to be instructive that Europe has done precisely that with a tailpipe emissions standard for the whole EU, not member by member.

Administrator Jackson has promised an "impartial review" of California's request, complete with public hearings. Her decision should follow the public comment period that will apparently end April 6. I hope that her finding will signal the end of a long period in which states were forced to blaze the trail on climate change, but can now yield leadership back to the federal government that must speak with one voice in the negotiations toward a global climate agreement in Copenhagen, this December.

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