California Law Could Force 30% Cut in GHG Emissions

Published March 1, 2004

California Air Resources Board (CARB) officials have begun drafting plans to implement legislation requiring “maximum feasible and cost-effective” reductions in the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. The legislation, A.B. 1493, was signed into law by former Governor Gray Davis (D) in 2002.

A California air quality official told the environmental news service Greenwire the proposed standards would force automakers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 30 percent. The standards would begin taking effect in 2006 and would apply to all cars by model year 2009.

“We think that there are many technologies available that can lead to significant reductions of greenhouse gas emissions,” said Charles Shulock, a vehicle program specialist with CARB.

High Price to Pay

Automobile industry analysts, however, warned the California mandate will significantly increase the price of new vehicles sold in the state.

For example, Honda offers a low-emission gas-electric hybrid version of its popular Honda Civic. Whereas a conventional gas-powered Civic retails for as little as $13,010, the starting price for a Civic hybrid is $19,650–50 percent more expensive than its gas-powered counterpart. And Honda builds the hybrid at a smaller profit margin than the gas-powered Civic.

The Civic hybrid engine sacrifices vehicle performance, as the engine is less powerful than that of its gas-powered counterpart. Although the hybrid gets roughly 30 percent better gas mileage than a conventional Civic, few if any motorists will drive enough to recoup the higher price. Moreover, the hybrid requires a $2,000 battery replacement every 100,000 miles or so, virtually wiping out any long-term savings in fuel costs.

To a limited extent, automakers will be permitted to fulfill California’s new emission standards by alternative means, such as planting trees. But CARB plans to tightly cap the amount of credits automakers can attain by such methods. “The goal is to improve the vehicles themselves,” said Shulock.

Challenges Expected

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has pledged to support the new rules and defend them against expected legal challenges. “California has always led the nation in clean air programs, and federal law gives us the right to adopt standards more stringent than those in other states,” said Schwarzenegger. “California’s landmark legislation to cut greenhouse gases is now law, and I will work to implement it and to win the expected challenges in court along the way.”

State officials will have to defend the law against claims it was implemented in an effort to regulate fuel economy, a matter courts have ruled is reserved for action by the federal government. Although the law does not specifically mandate hikes in fuel economy, there is currently no other effective way to curb greenhouse gas emissions by automobiles. Under federal law, state governments are not allowed to preempt federal fuel efficiency standards.

California has been down this road before. In 1990, state lawmakers passed a law requiring that 10 percent of cars sold in California be zero- or near-zero emissions by 2003. A federal judge in June 2002 prohibited enforcement of the law, deeming it an implicit effort to mandate fuel economy standards. End runs around matters reserved for the federal government–even if accomplished indirectly–would not be tolerated, the court ruled. Critics of California’s new emissions law say the same logic applies.

“Is California’s bill about global warming or gas mileage?” asked Bill Becker, executive director of the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators, based in Washington DC. “I don’t know, but it will address both.”

“The danger is that Californians may lose the choice to buy the vehicles they need for their families and work,” said Eron Shosteck, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. “This gives unelected bureaucrats a blank check to design the cars that Californians will drive. The Air Resources Board wants everyone driving around in golf carts.”

Shosteck pointed out consumers already have the choice of buying small, fuel-efficient cars. However, he noted, combined sales of the 10 most fuel-efficient cars in America represent only 1.5 percent of vehicles sold. “Consumers are going to be angry when they find they can’t have the SUV, or pickup, or minivan they want,” Shosteck said.

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].