WASHINGTON - Congressional Democrats yesterday announced an investigation of the Environmental Protection Agency's refusal to let California implement its tailpipe emissions law, the first step in what will likely be a fierce legal and political battle.
Representative Henry Waxman, a California Democrat and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent a letter to EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson demanding "all documents relating to the California waiver request, other than those that are available on the public record."
Waxman told Johnson to have EPA staff preserve all records. The decision against California "appears to have ignored the evidence before the agency and the requirements of the Clean Air Act," Waxman wrote. He asked for all the relevant documents by Jan. 23.
Johnson on Wednesday denied that his decision was political, saying it was based on legal analysis of the Clean Air Act. His refusal blocks action by California and at least 16 other states - including Massachusetts - that want to adopt California's law slashing greenhouse gas emissions from new cars and trucks by a third.
President Bush stood by the decision of his EPA administrator.
"The question is how to have an effective strategy. Is it more effective to let each state make a decision as to how to proceed in curbing greenhouse gases or is it more effective to have a national strategy," Bush said at a news conference.
Johnson said California's emissions limits weren't needed because Congress just passed energy legislation raising fuel economy standards nationwide.
Johnson's announcement provoked applause from the auto industry, but an outcry of protest from environmentalists, congressional Democrats, and officials in California and other affected states.
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California immediately announced plans to fight EPA's decision in federal court.
"I am extremely disappointed by EPA's decision to block the will of millions of people in California and 16 other states who want us to take tough action against global warming," Schwarzenegger said in a statement.
"I have no doubt that we will prevail because the law, science, and the public's demand for leadership are on our side," he said.
"It is completely absurd to assert that California does not have a compelling need to fight global warming by curbing greenhouse gas emissions from cars," Attorney General Jerry Brown said. "There is absolutely no legal justification for the Bush administration to deny this request.
Massachusetts and 11 other states - Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington - have adopted the California emissions standards. The governors of Arizona, Colorado, Florida, and Utah have said they also plan to adopt them. The rules were also under consideration in Iowa.
The tailpipe standards California adopted in 2004 would have forced automakers to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent in new cars and light trucks by 2016, with the cutbacks beginning in the 2009 model year.
Under the Clean Air Act, the state needed a federal waiver to implement the rules, and other states could then adopt them too.
Johnson said a better approach was new energy legislation requiring automakers to achieve an industrywide average fuel efficiency for cars, SUVs and small trucks of 35 miles per gallon by 2020.
He said California's law would have yielded a 33.8-miles-per-gallon standard, but California Air Resources Board chairwoman Mary Nichols disputed that, saying the California regulations would have resulted in a 36.8-miles-per-gallon average and would have taken effect sooner than the federal standards.
The auto regulations were to have been a major part of California's first-in-the-nation global warming law which aims to reduce greenhouse gases economy-wide by 25 percent - to 1990 levels - by 2020. The auto emission reductions would have accounted for about 17 percent of the state's proposed reductions.