Penn. Legislators Seek to Block California Emissions Standards

Published February 1, 2006

Leaders in the Pennsylvania House and Senate have introduced legislation to keep state residents from being subject to California auto emissions standards, preferring instead to use federal standards for auto emissions.

States Can Choose

Under the federal Clean Air Act, states have a choice to meet either federal standards or stricter California standards for emissions from vehicles and other mobile sources.

The Pennsylvania Clean Vehicle Program, enacted in 1998, adopted a third set of standards: the National Low Emissions Vehicle (NLEV) standards. The NLEV standards were voluntary ones stricter than the federal standards in place at the time, yet more lenient than the California standards enacted by California Air Resources Board (CARB) regulators. Between 1998 and 2005, the Pennsylvania Environmental Quality Board allowed automakers and auto dealers to adhere to the California or NLEV standards.

According to a December 13, 2005 statement issued by state Sen. Mary Jo White (R-Venango), “to encourage automakers not to withdraw from NLEV–thus falling back on the weaker [federal] Tier 1 standard–states adopted the California rules as a legal backstop. Automakers would be less likely to withdraw from NLEV if they faced the possibility of implementing California rules.” The NLEV rules also were considered a backstop should the federal government fail to finalize a stricter, Tier 2 rule.

Option Expiring

With the NLEV option expiring in the state with the 2006 model year, environmental activists and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) assert only the California option remains, and therefore Pennsylvania is now governed by the California standards. Others, including White, say the federal Tier 2 rule, now finalized, applies.

As White explained, “the California rules were adopted in our regulations, and submitted to EPA, only as a legal backstop–in essence a paperwork exercise. We did so only because, back in 1998, the NLEV was a voluntary emission standard and states (with EPA’s blessing) needed an incentive to encourage automakers not to withdraw from it. This became moot when the federal government finalized Tier 2 in 2000.”

DEP Secretary Kathleen McGinty, formerly an environmental official in the Clinton administration, argues that by using California standards “as a backstop,” the Pennsylvania Clean Vehicle Program adopts the California standards, known as Cal LEV II, by reference. Accordingly, DEP, through its Environmental Quality Board, is now proposing to make Cal LEV II the legal auto emission standards in Pennsylvania. Those standards, according to the DEP regulation, would take effect in 2008.

Legislators Oppose DEP

White, who is chair of the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, and Sen. Roger Madigan (R-Bradford), chair of the Transportation Committee, have introduced a bill that would prohibit DEP from adopting the Cal LEV II standards. Under the bill, which has 18 additional co-sponsors from both political parties, DEP would be required to incorporate federal Tier 2 as part of the State Implementation Plan for meeting clean air goals under the Clean Air Act.

In a joint statement, Madigan and White said, “We are very concerned over the prospect of subjecting Pennsylvanians to regulations crafted by CARB. CARB is obligated to impose air quality standards for California–not Pennsylvania–to meet its air quality attainment.”

In the state House, the ranking Republican, Rick Geist (R-Altoona), and ranking Democrat Keith McCall (D-Carbon) have introduced a bill that would have the same effect as the Madigan-White Senate bill.

Geist asserts the primary nature of his bill is “a matter of sovereignty.” “I don’t want a board from California setting policy for Pennsylvania,” said Geist.

In a letter published by the Tribune-Democrat, Geist observed, “The choice here is not between a clean car and a dirty car, as some have portrayed it. It is a choice between two very clean cars.”

Further Improvements Minuscule

In December 1999, as the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) adopted the Tier 2 standards, then-president Bill Clinton called the Tier 2 standards “the boldest steps in a generation to clean the air we breathe.” Clinton observed the standards “will reduce tailpipe emissions by as much as 95 percent.”

According to Joel Schwartz, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and an expert on auto and air regulation, “under Tier 2 standards the average car will have an 80 percent reduction in auto emissions compared to model-year 2000 automobiles. By comparison, the California standards will lead to only an 82 percent improvement,” said Schwartz.

The California standards, however, will lead to substantial extra costs, Schwartz said, because the closer automobiles get to zero emissions, the more difficult and more costly the remaining reductions become.

“CARB estimates that its regulations will add $1,000 to the cost of cars, but auto industry research puts the figure closer to $3,000,” Schwartz said. “Misleadingly, these regulatory costs will be largely hidden from consumers because the costs won’t be seen on the invoice.”

Activists Vow Lawsuits

The Clean Air Council, an environmental activist group based in Philadelphia, has indicated it will file suit in federal court if the state does not abide by the California standards.

“Our position is that Pennsylvania should adopt the California standards because it’s important to have the cleanest air possible,” said Eric Cheung, an attorney with the council.

“[Tier 2] is not a dirty-car standard,” countered Gene Barr, vice president for political and regulatory affairs at the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry. Barr said adopting Tier 2 would keep the state safely in compliance with federal clean air standards and existing state rules, including the Pennsylvania Clean Vehicle Program.

Michael Coulter ([email protected]) teaches political science at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania.