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Merits of California greenhouse-gas rule debated

Automotive Engineering, April 2009

The March 5 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hearings on California’s request to be able to set the first greenhouse gas tailpipe emission standards in the U.S. showcased the domestic industry’s engineering advances over the past half decade. Auto manufacturers are well-positioned technologically to meet those requirements in California but would face seemingly intractable product sales mix problems in the other states which want to adopt the California standard.
Even Golden State Senator Fran Pavley, in an interview with Automotive Engineering before the hearings began, metaphorically tipped her hat to Detroit saying the industry “has moved in the right direction.” Pavley was the author of the law the Calfornia legislature passed in 2001 requiring autos to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2016. The California Air Resources Board approved a regulation in 2004 dictating the steps car makers would have to take starting in model year 2009.
Pavley was among the California environmental heavyweights who came to Crystal City, Virginia to testify at a standing-room-only EPA public hearing. California has to meet certain conditions before the EPA can grant it a GHG emissions waiver from the Clean Air Act. Stephen Johnson, the EPA administrator at the end of the Bush administration, denied the waiver request in January 2008.
On January 21, 2009, Mary Nichols, chairman of the California Air Resources Board (CARB), wrote to then EPA administrator-designee Lisa Jackson asking her to reconsider Johnson’s denial. Jackson, with President Obama’s approval, agreed and scheduled the March 5 hearing.
In an interview prior to the hearing, Tom Cackette, chief deputy executive officer for CARB said auto manufacturers will be able to meet the California standard, which calls for a 30 percent reduction in GHG emissions by 2015 without any problem. Cackette said that if the California GHG standard in 2015 was converted into a miles per gallon equivalent, it would equate to a national mpg fleet average of 33.8 which would be a bit higher in California, 35.7, because his state has a 60/40 passenger/light duty ratio whereas the nation is 70/30. The California GHG standard does not increase after 2015.
“The auto makers can absolutely meet the California standard,” Cackette said in his interview with Automotive Engineering.
Charlie Territo, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, essentially agreed with Cackette. He said that the CAFE standards the DOT is likely to adopt differ only “negligibly” from the California GHG standard in terms of mpg requirements. The problem with California, Territo explained, is that its standard is based on a “fleet average” whereas the DOT CAFE standard is based on the size and footprint of individual models.
Territo explained that California’s “fleet-based” standards are troublesome because of their prospective impact on auto sales in different states. “The structure and framework as it applies to compliance on a state by state level creates some real difficulties,” Territo said. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have already passed laws adopting the California GHG standard which they will impose if and when the EPA grants California a waiver. So, for example, if California’s passenger car to light truck mix is 70/30, in a more rural state like Idaho it might be 40/60. That would mean that car manufacturers would have to sell a different mix of cars and trucks in Idaho and California. Idaho consumers who might want to buy a pickup might find them in very short supply, encouraging them to shop for those pickups in California.
Territo says the problem could be solved by the U.S. adopting one national standard for GHG emissions and fuel economy. That approach was endorsed by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Michigan). With his eyeglasses halfway down his nose, he argued that greenhouse gas emissions are not “unique” to California. Therefore, the state cannot claim that those emissions pose an “extraordinary and compelling” case for a Clean Air Act waiver. “A ton of carbon emitted in California is the same as a ton of carbon emitted in any other state,” Levin stated.
President Obama has seemed to endorse the “one national standard” concept. But neither Obama nor anyone else has talked about what that standard might look like. The problem is that the CAFE standard being considered by the DOT will not come close to producing the GHG emission reductions in California (or the 13 other states and DC) that the California standard calls for.
Cackette acknowledged that technologies aimed at reducing GHG emissions don’t always help as much in improving gas mileage. For example, substituting cleaner air conditioning refrigerants helps considerably to reduce GHG emissions, but does nothing to help with CAFE standards. Using diesel fuel in an engine can lead to a 35 percent increase in fuel economy in some models, Cackette said, but only a 20 percent gain in GHG emission reduction.

However, Cackette said the state would have no problem with one national automotive emission/CAFE standard. “If it would satisfy our needs, we don’t need two standards,” he admitted. But when asked whether CARB might ease its GHG emissions standard as part of a compromise—perhaps by ditching its “fleet-average” requirement—Cackette had a one word answer. “No.”