California cleanup

July 07, 2002

REPUBLICANS HAVE always liked the idea of the states assuming more power, at the expense of the federal government -- so now California is going to put that to the test. A state controlled by Democrats -- a big, powerful, influential state -- is about to impose clean-air standards on car and truck exhaust that will completely eclipse Washington's do-nothing policy. And it will likely set the course for the rest of the country.

Last week, the state's legislature, in a straight party-line vote, passed a bill calling for the "maximum feasible reduction" in greenhouse-gas emissions from motor vehicles. A state board would draw up guidelines that would go into effect in 2009. Gov. Gray Davis told a San Francisco radio station that he probably will sign the measure.

And, as always, as California goes, so goes the nation.

Ten percent of the cars sold in America are sold to Californians; theirs is a market that the automakers are forced to cater to. Moreover, under the federal Clean Air Act, other states are free to adopt California's stricter standards as their own -- and at least some are sure to follow. (California, a pioneer in setting anti-pollution standards, was given a special dispensation to impose its own, more stringent guidelines when the Clean Air Act was originally passed.)

The car lobby -- or, more accurately, the SUV lobby -- is not taking this lying down. Detroit and its overseas allies are sure to challenge the law in court.

Already, opponents are talking about bureaucrats dictating what kinds of cars Californians can drive, taking away the precious right to choose whatever monster the consumer might fancy. Some have predicted that the law actually will worsen air quality in California, because people will not want to buy new cars that conform to the guidelines and as a result the state will be awash in old junkers. It'll be like Havana on the Pacific.

The vilest argument, though, is the one about safety: that Californians (and all Americans) need giant, gas-guzzling vehicles so they won't get killed in accidents. The truth is that SUVs are no safer than other cars, and that other cars are safer without SUVs.

This spring, the U.S. Senate killed an effort to raise mileage standards. Technologically, it's completely doable. It would cut American dependence on imported oil, improve air quality and cut the emission of gases that are linked to global warming. But the automakers feared it also would cut into their profits on SUVs and pickup trucks. The Bush administration, which had pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gases, sided with them.

But now California, which is outranked only by President Bush's home state of Texas when it comes to carbon dioxide emissions, is putting America back into Kyoto.

Republicans, in Sacramento and Washington, are kicking and screaming. But for years they've argued that there's more common sense in the states than there is in the District of Columbia -- and it's starting to look like they just might be right.

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