Choke hold

August 15, 2007

Maryland's bid to make its own stand against global warming has been blocked by federal resistance. But pressure to surmount that barrier is building as nearly half the nation has now joined the cause.

Maryland's "clean cars" legislation, aimed at reducing greenhouse-gas production in the state by 7.8 million tons per year, has run up against the Bush administration's stubborn campaign on behalf of the automobile industry to prevent states from regulating tailpipe emissions from vehicles sold within their borders.

Yet if the industry were as concerned as it claims to be about trying to accommodate a patchwork map of a dozen states that have adopted the tougher standards and those that haven't yet, it would demand that Congress apply a single standard nationwide.

With no sign of that yet, the Environmental Protection Agency should live up to its name by allowing the states to act on their own. As Maryland state Sen. Brian E. Frosh told The Sun's Matthew Hay Brown, "If the EPA isn't going to lead, at least get out of the way."

California, which represents one-eighth of the nation's population, has long been a leader in cleaning up tailpipe emissions. The state won federal authority in 1967 to develop its own air-quality standards with EPA approval, and other states have frequently followed California's lead. Americans can thank the Golden State for the catalytic converter, low-emissions vehicles, the "check engine" light, and now the first bid to limit carbon dioxide from cars and trucks, the second-leading man-made contributor to global warming.

But California has been waiting since 2005 for the EPA to grant the CO2 waiver. First there was a battle over whether CO2 is a pollutant within the EPA's purview; the Supreme Court declared emphatically this spring that it is. Since then, EPA director Stephen L. Johnson has dithered, promising a decision by the end of this year. Meanwhile, federal transportation officials have been lobbying lawmakers with auto plants in their districts to pressure the EPA to reject the California waiver.

This is another instance when leadership is coming from the ground up, as Americans who have to live with the hot, smoggy, unhealthful air produced by the congestion of so many cars and trucks show more common sense than officials motivated only by short-term economic concerns.

A few more big states, and cars with California standards could dominate the market. Maybe then the EPA will come along.

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