Why California Goes Its Own Way on the Environment

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Last week, Bloomberg News reporters broke the story that, as part of a broader effort by the Donald Trump administration to relax emissions and fuel-economy standards for new cars,

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will propose revoking the Clean Air Act waiver granted to California that has allowed the state to regulate carbon emissions from vehicle tailpipes and force carmakers to sell a minimum number of electric vehicles in the state.

This particular waiver dates to 2013 and was granted by the EPA under Barack Obama after the George W. Bush EPA had turned down the state’s first attempt to regulate greenhouse gas emissions by cars in 2007. But California’s ability to set its own auto-emissions standards goes back many decades, so to get a better sense of how that came to be, I talked to David Vogel, an emeritus professor of business and political science at the University of California at Berkeley and author of the new history “California Greenin’: How the Golden State Became an Environmental Leader.” What follows are edited excerpts of our conversation.

Justin Fox: Reports indicate that the Trump administration really is going to go ahead and try to revoke the waiver that allows California to set tougher standards on auto emissions than the federal government. How did California end up getting such a waiver in the first place?

David Vogel: California enacted the country’s first automobile emissions standards in the early 1960s. It did so in response to Los Angeles, which was a unique city in that a disproportionate amount of its air pollution came from automobiles. In order to improve air quality in Los Angeles, it was necessary to impose automobile emission standards, and so California did that.

In the beginning, the [auto] industry didn’t mind that because it was only one state and [the standards] weren’t very onerous. But then New York also began to be aware of smog caused by cars, and talked about having its own standards. The industry panicked and said to the federal government, “OK, now we want uniform federal standards which would deny any state the right to have its own.” And there was a huge battle in Washington.

JF: This was in 1967.

DV: In ’67, right, over the Air Quality Act and whether or not it would include a provision allowing California to have its own standards. It was very bitter. The House approved it with preemption, then it went to the Senate and Bobby Kennedy actually told the California senators, “Why don’t you make it into a states’ rights issue and get the Southern Democrats to back you?”

JF: And that worked?

DV: Yes, the amendment was included. Any state which had emission standards before the federal government did could maintain them. The deal under the ’67 statute was that California can petition the federal government to enact its own standards by providing evidence why they are critical. The state has received over 100 waivers since then.

JF: One more thing about 1967, just because the name stood out, is that the person leading the fight against allowing California to do this was none other than John Dingell.

DV: Ford [Motor Co.] was in his district, and the industry was very opposed to giving California the right to have its own standards. What’s interesting is that the California congressional delegation, and elected officials from [Governor Ronald] Reagan on down, Democrat, Republican, Northern and Southern Californian, all backed the California exemption. The notion was that we should have the right to have our own standards, we have our own problems, we’ve done all these things, we’ve played a leadership role, and we don’t want the federal government interfering with our ability to address our environmental problems.

JF: There’s a statistic at one point in your book that cars in California are 99 percent cleaner now than they were in 1970.

DV: The overall improvement in criteria emissions, health-related emissions, both nationally and in California, has been spectacular. The improvement in air quality in the United States through cars has been one of the most spectacular public-policy successes in the last half-century, and California has played a role in that dynamic.

JF: Los Angeles and a bunch of Central Valley cities still have pretty bad air pollution. In the book, you describe accounts from as far back as the 1500s of people talking about the way the inversion layer would cause smoke to obscure the mountains in LA. So there are some unique local issues there.

DV: Not only do you have the topographical phenomena, which of course is forever, but you also have more and more cars. So it’s an ongoing, endless battle to protect air quality.

JF: Does it seem like no-emission electrical or hydrogen vehicles are in the end the only thing that’s actually going to work for places like LA?

DV: I think the long-term vision is that there are real limits to how much the traditional gasoline engine can be improved to become more efficient or less polluting, and that we need to eventually move toward a new technology of electric cars or hybrid cars.

JF: This current fight with the EPA centers around the Pavley bill that was passed in 2002, which directed the state regulatory agency to start looking at greenhouse gases as well as other emissions.

DV: The California standards merged to include both greenhouse gas emissions and health-related pollutants. They combined them in one set of standards.

JF: Do you have any opinions about whether what the Trump administration is doing now is a good idea?

DV: I think the rollback of fuel economy standards would be a disaster nationally, and challenging California’s exemption would go against the broad thrust of public policies since 1967. It’s a very big deal for California because California is unique in the extent to which both general pollutants and greenhouse gas pollutants are derived from motor vehicle transportation. It would be a major blow to the state of California if this succeeds.

JF: Your book is about the broader history of how California came to play a leadership role on environmental protection. Obviously part of the issue was just that LA had really bad smog, but what were the big reasons why in general the state was the trendsetter in the environmental movement, starting well before the rest of the country?

DV: One key is geography. It’s a state with lots of natural beauty — the coast, the redwoods, etc. The second key is that this natural attractiveness was continually threatened by economic development, beginning with gold mining and then of course with cars in Los Angeles, coastal development, cutting down the redwoods, etc. So it’s an attractive environment which has been very threatened. In response to those threats, both citizen groups and business interests recognized that they had an economic benefit in maintaining the state’s natural attractiveness.

What I found most surprising in researching the book is that it really challenges the notion that you have citizen groups against businesses on the environment. In California, you often have businesses on both sides. You had business interests from the very beginning supporting Yosemite and protecting the redwoods. Reducing pollution from cars in Los Angeles was driven by the LA business community. And now there’s clean tech. That business backing of environmental protection has been very important in explaining California’s unique environmental trajectory.

JF: How would you rate the state’s overall success over the past 75, 100 years in protecting its environment?

DV: The problem of course is the state keeps getting richer, with more economic development and more population. So that exacerbates the threat to the environment. Given the magnitude of the threats California has faced, I think the extent to which it has been able to protect this environment is extraordinary. I mean, it remains a beautiful state.

JF: These environmental regulations mean gas is more expensive in California. They drive up the price of cars somewhat. But there clearly are benefits on the other hand.

DV: I think protecting its environmental quality is a source of competitive advantage for California.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”

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