Calif. says carmakers can meet strict limits

Industry disagrees on proposed new emission rules

March 06, 2009|By Jim Tankersley and Ken Bensinger | Jim Tankersley and Ken Bensinger,Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES -California officials told the Environmental Protection Agency yesterday that major automakers are already on track to meet the state's strict proposed limits on greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles.

Auto industry supporters disagreed, however, at a daylong hearing over whether the EPA should grant California's request to allow it and 13 other states, including Maryland, to set their own emissions standards.

Automakers and dealers raised concerns over several points of California's plan and said they would welcome a nationwide standard for emissions limits. State officials said they wouldn't accept any national standard that fell short of their own.

Listening to the arguments was the Obama administration, which has expressed strong interest in crafting a national emissions standard that satisfies both the recession-rocked domestic auto industry and a state eager to lead the fight against climate change.

The Clean Air Act allows California to seek permission to set its own air pollution standards, which California did by passing the nation's first law regulating greenhouse gas emissions from vehicle tailpipes earlier this decade.

The state has been unable to implement the regulation because of a series of legal challenges from the auto industry and a decision by the Bush administration in late 2007 to deny the state's request for a required EPA waiver.

Only a week into his term, President Barack Obama ordered the EPA to reconsider that move, amid signals that his administration is moving toward a national standard.

The EPA scheduled a hearing yesterday at its office in Arlington, Va., to solicit public comments on the California request.

California representatives emphasized the dangers a warming climate poses to the state's air quality, water supply and agriculture, as well as the EPA's history of granting their regulatory requests.

State officials also said they believed General Motors Corp. would meet their standards for this model year and 2010. Their opinion was based on information from the troubled automaker's recovery plan filed with the Obama administration earlier this year.

"The technology is ready" for more efficient cars and trucks, said Tom Cackette, deputy executive officer of the California Air Resources Board. "The manufacturers are exceeding our expectations." But Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who has been a staunch friend of the automakers, said California's regulations would handicap the domestic auto industry.

"Global warming is not unique to California," he said. "And to suggest that it is actually undermines the argument that it is a global threat that knows no boundaries."

Levin and industry representatives argued for national emissions controls, rather than for enforcing emissions limits on the state level. They noted the shocks of the sagging economy on auto sales and said granting the California request would force automakers to comply with a different standard in every state that has adopted the rule.

GM has argued against the state-by-state approach in the past. But as the troubled automaker waits for the White House to decide whether to give it $16.6 billion in additional bailout funding, the company has taken a quieter role in the debate. The company did not speak directly at yesterday's hearing and has been reserved in its criticism of the California rule.

Deciding how to regulate emissions is "a process that we plan to be engaged in," GM spokesman Greg Martin said. "We continue to work vigorously on the new technologies and cars that will offer meaningful solutions to the nation's energy crisis."

California officials said they would ultimately like one national policy on greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles, as is the case in Europe and Japan. "Our hope is that there would be a federal [standard] that we could sign onto and support," said Mary Nichols, who chairs the Air Resources Board. "That would be the best for the world."

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