Challenge to State’s Clean-Air Rules Rebuffed

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After reviewing standards that some said threatened thousands of factory jobs, a national research panel sides with the regulators.

Source of this article – Los Angeles Times, March 17, 2006

By Janet Wilson, Times Staff Writer

A National Research Council panel on Thursday overwhelmingly endorsed California’s tough air pollution regulations, saying the state had served as “a proving ground for new emissions-control technologies that benefit California and the rest of the nation.”

Missouri Republican Sen. Kit Bond persuaded Congress in 2003 to order the study of California’s air regulatory track record, saying the nation’s largest lawn mower engine manufacturer was threatening to move 22,000 jobs overseas because of the state’s overreaching, costly requirements.

The panel not only found that California’s unique legal right under the Clean Air Act to set stricter standards than the federal government was “scientifically valid,” and “still needed because of persistent pollution,” but also recommended that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency speed up its review of such regulations.

“As with any laboratory there are some failures, and that has sometimes imposed financial burdens on the auto manufacturing industry, for instance, but there have also been spectacular successes,” said report co-author Gary Marchant, a law professor at Arizona State University.

Marchant was one of 11 experts who prepared the report for the Research Council, a nonpartisan arm of the National Academy of Sciences that advises Congress.

The results thrilled state air regulators, medical groups and environmentalists who have feared a weakening of states’ powers to regulate smog.

“The study blew up in Sen. Bond’s face…. It’s a complete vindication for California and its groundbreaking efforts to deal with the problem of pollution from cars and other moving sources,” said Frank O’Donnell of Clean Air Watch, a Washington-based nonprofit organization. “The fact is, breathers from coast to coast are breathing cleaner air today because of California.”

Under the Clean Air Act, every other state must follow rules set by the EPA, unless California adopts stricter standards, which other states with smog problems can then follow.

“We’re very pleased,” said California Air Resources Board spokesman Jerry Martin. “Clearly the report justifies our position that we need to have separate standards. Air pollution rates in California in general have plummeted in the last 30 years or so, and that’s largely due to California’s unique emission standards for … all engines that we are allowed to regulate…. Anything we can regulate, we have.”

On Thursday, Bond spokesman Rob Ostrander defended the study request, saying the senator acted after Briggs & Stratton threatened to move its factories overseas because of California’s impending requirement to require catalytic converters in power mowers.

Bond said the California rule could have closed two small-engines plants in Missouri alone.

Ostrander said, “Sen. Bond is not planning or considering any major revisions to the Clean Air Act, but does reserve the right to fight again any repeat attempt by California to kill jobs in other states.”

The panel of scientists said something needed to be done to stop lengthy litigation that often occurred when other states tried to emulate California’s standards, but could not agree on proposed measures. One option they mentioned would be for the EPA to have veto power over other states, as they do over California. Auto makers pushed for such a recommendation by the panel, which state air boards vehemently opposed.

“We are pleased that the [National Research Council] committee did not recommend any changes — legislative or regulatory — to restrict the ability of states to adopt California’s motor vehicle standards,” said S. William Becker, executive director of two national associations of state and local air boards. “The [council] decided not to yield to pressure from special interests.”

Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said that although auto manufacturers had never suggested California lose its special status, “we do believe that EPA’s federal program provides states with comparable clean air benefits.”

She said, “Bottom line, the [National Research Council] report emphasizes the benefits of everyone working toward a shared goal of clean air, instead of acting like adversaries.”

California must seek waivers from the EPA for its rules, and such applications often languish for years. The panel recommended the EPA set a two-year limit for making such decisions The state currently is awaiting federal approval of standards for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, and requiring catalytic converters on lawn mowers.

Auto makers have sued to stop California, Vermont, New York, Rhode Island and New York from implementing their own greenhouse gas standards.

Panel Chairman David T. Allen, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Texas, said in a teleconference Thursday morning that auto manufacturers in particular had complained in testimony about the costs of designing special products for California, but had declined to provide full evidence of those costs.