IN THE 37 years since the Clean Air Act gave smog-plagued California the right to set tougher antipollution standards than the federal government, Washington has granted the state 50 waivers, never flatly rejecting one. Never, that is, until last week, when the Environmental Protection Agency turned down California's bid to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of cars by requiring higher fuel efficiency. Sixteen other states, including Massachusetts, have indicated they would adopt the California rules. The states should now take the EPA to federal court, where judges have been sympathetic to states' efforts to take the lead on global warming.
The EPA action comes despite overwhelming support for the waiver from the agency's technical and legal staffs. Smelling a rat, Representative Henry Waxman of California has already called for a congressional investigation into the circumstances behind the huge disconnect between the advice of the staff and the decision of the EPA administrator, Stephen L. Johnson.
The rat that Waxman will find without much effort is politics. When California Senator Barbara Boxer, who chairs the environment committee, had earlier quizzed Johnson about pressure from the White House on the California decision, he evaded the questions.
The White House has clearly been under pressure from automakers, who had resigned themselves to the tougher efficiency standards in the energy bill Bush signed last week, but don't want to contend with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's rules. The energy bill calls for raising the standard for cars from 27.5 miles per gallon now to 35 by 2020. The California standard requires 36 miles per gallon by 2016.
The Bush administration says the fuel standard in the energy bill eliminates the need for the California rules and spares the industry from having to engineer cars to meet two different efficiency tests. But if 17 states, with about half the nation's drivers, see greater urgency than Washington does in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, they deserve the right to take action. Federal environmental laws should be floors, not ceilings, for reducing pollution.
The Bush administration tried to escape any duty to address the global warming caused by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by saying that the gases are not within the purview of the Clean Air Act. Last spring, however, the Supreme Court ruled that the administration was wrong - that EPA has the authority to regulate carbon dioxide. The decision will buttress the case of the 17 states when they appeal EPA's rejection of the waiver on fuel efficiency. Regrettably, the appeal process will delay the day when Detroit finally learns that the Terminator - and the leaders of 16 other states - really do mean business on global warming.