The EPA has reversed a Bush-era decision and allowed California to set its own regulations on automobile emissions.
Today's decision sets the stage for the proposed national vehicle emissions standards that President Obama announced in May: New cars and trucks sold in the U.S. will be required to improve their fuel efficiency gradually over the next seven years, reaching an average of 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016 -- a 40% improvement over the current 25 mpg level. The federal government agrees to adopt California's standards as its own, and the state agrees not to toughen the standards before 2017. Automakers agree to drop lawsuits against California's standards.The Clean Air Act places authority over national automobile standards with the EPA but allows California to request permission to set stricter regulations. Other states can then adopt California's rules or stick with the national standard. So then there are basically two standards in use (not the patchwork of local regulations often denounced by clean air opponents): the federal standard and the California standard.
Agreement on the national standards came after intensive negotiations between the administration, California, environmentalists and the auto industry.
In the future, California could petition the EPA to set even stricter emissions standards, which probably would be granted on the legal grounds that the administration reaffirmed in granting this request.
This provision makes sense because not all states have the same regulatory needs. Densely-populated states, especially ones with large cities, tend to have worse air quality and thus need to regulate pollution sources much more strictly. This certainly applies to California, which has three major metropolitan areas. It also applies in many states in the Northeast and Midwest, and certainly some in the South. Meanwhile rural states may not benefit as much from strict regulation of automobile emissions since there are fewer people sitting in traffic and air quality problems are more likely to come from other sources.
Thirteen states had chosen to adopt California's proposed standards at the time Stephen Johnson's EPA turned down California's waiver request. One of these was my state, New Jersey; others included Arizona, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. Lisa Jackson, current EPA administrator, worked for the New Jersey DEP at the time and presumably supported the state government's decision. So it is not at all surprising that she chose to reverse the waiver denial.