Cases of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are down about three percent over the last 40 years in California, even as state population is up by well over one-third, better than 15 million, and far more smog-belching vehicles than ever clog the roads. This is a major public health achievement, and the single biggest reason behind it is the 45-year-old federal Clean Air Act and its provisions for California waivers.
Despite this and other clear-cut successes, the California waivers vital to this state’s long-running battle against smog may soon be threatened. Those waivers let California set automotive and industrial emissions standards stricter than those in other parts of America, justified by substandard air quality in places like the Los Angeles basin and Bakersfield.
While there is some disbelief in high quarters over climate change and the effects of man-made greenhouse gases, no one doubts what smog can do to human lungs. On any warm day in places like the San Joaquin, San Fernando and Santa Clara valleys, it’s hard to miss the brown taint smog often gives the air.
But the number of smog alerts has dropped steadily for decades all over California, largely because of the waivers. Rules they made possible are behind generations of smog control devices, industrial smokestack controls and catalytic converters, plus hybrid, electric and now hydrogen-powered cars.
So effective are the California rules that more than a dozen other states passed laws requiring them to adopt for themselves any new California standards within a few years of their taking effect here.
These advances, plus new zero-emissions vehicles and other improvements now in the works, were at first pronounced economic impossibilities by a united front of automakers. Yet, they’ve found ways to make these things both stylish and profitable. Without the California waiver capability written into the Clean Air Act before then-President Richard Nixon signed it in the early 1970s, none of this could be.
All this is now threatened by the words and record of President Trump’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency.
In his confirmation hearing before a Senate committee, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt refused to commit even to keep in place the current versions of California waivers.
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Over the last four decades, the EPA granted this state more than 50 such waivers. Historically, these have been harder for the state to get under Republican presidents than under Democrats.
For example, a requirement that large car makers produce hydrogen cars like the Toyota Mirai and other advanced autos now in the works did not occur while George W. Bush was president, even though state officials in 2005 began applying for a greenhouse gas-fighting waiver to authorize it. Within less than a month after Barack Obama took office in 2009, the waiver process was underway, eventually winning approval that July.
Pruitt, often accused of favoring oil companies and other polluters in his home state, said he plans to review all of California’s waivers and might even try to take away powers granted in the past. Never mind that it’s a little late to disinvent the Toyota Prius, the Tesla Models X and S and other hybrid and electric cars.
It would be one thing for Pruitt to refuse new California waivers despite their many successes. There’s precedent for that. But Pruitt would be treading on new legal ground if he tries to cancel existing waivers.
This possibility is one reason California legislators retained the law firm of former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to help fight off potential Trump administration attempts to nix current state programs. New state Attorney General Xavier Becerra also vows resistance. No one knows where all this might lead under an administration otherwise committed to allowing states plenty of leeway to manage their own destinies on things like voting rights and water quality.
“When we hear you say ‘review,’” Democratic Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts told Pruitt during his hearing, “I hear ‘undo the rights of the states.’”
It sets up an uncertain future for one of the most positive, successful of state efforts, one that’s been backed by all California governors going back to Ronald Reagan in the late 1960s.