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How a 7-year-old law surprised the auto industry

Submitted by on Tuesday, 27 January 2009 No Comment
auto_emissionsDid auto makers fall for the conspiracy theories that President Bush would declare martial law just before the election and remain in office forever?

Not that they could be faulted for fantasizing about that. Up until that tiny bobble near the end, the Bush years were very, very good for them. And that last blip had more to do with jabbing workers than it did with making the industry follow laws.

By and large, though, it was quite a party. Decades of waivers on fuel-efficiency standards. A five-year blockade on tough emissions standards that more than a dozen states sued to get implemented.

A funny thing happened a week ago, though.

Martial law was not implemented, and Barack Obama because president. Monday, he told regulators to get moving on letting the 14 states crack down on fuel efficiency and vehicle emissions.

Yet, the auto industry seemed shocked.

The industry needs more time, mouthpieces moaned. Forcing the standards now would devastate automakers. It's not fair to force us to make two kinds of cars, one for California and one for the rest of the country.

Question for Detroit: The California Legislature approved the law creating the standards in 2002. Did you miss that memo?

What would have happened had the auto industry spent the past seven years innovating instead of fighting the states via the Environmental Agency, the courts and in every other venue imaginable?

What if at any point in the past two decades the industry had gotten serious about fuel-efficiency standards instead of begging off with the same tired excuses of money and time.

If that had happened, maybe California would have made greater inroads in solving its pollution problem, a problem that has severe financial and human costs. A problem that means thousands of extra dollars spent each year to treat asthma and related illnesses, let alone the human suffering you can't put a cost on.

Tailpipes, you see, are the source of more than half the ozone-causing gas in certain pollution-plagued parts of California, including the part where a 5-year-old asthmatic known as Big Guy lives. And ozone is the biggest factor in summer pollution that leaves the air brown and thick for days on end.

But this is not just California's issue - 13 other states have joined in various lawsuits and appeals. Combined, the 14 states represent more than half the country's population. See? It's not just us West Coast crazies.

The industry can fault California for not tackling its own air problem sooner, and to a certain extent that's true. In recent years, though, various air districts have looked at regulations on everything from fireplaces to developers to farms to cows' rear ends.

The brutal truth, though, is that it's hard to make progress when the source of more than half the summertime pollution won't pitch in.

The states' battle isn't over yet. The so-called California standards still have to go through exhaustive review, and you can rest assured the industry lobbyists will roll out their pleas all over again. It's going to be interesting to follow the lobbying money as well.

This time, though, the industry will not succeed in blocking them.

Party's over.

Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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