Climate Danger and the U.S. Federal System

by Val Germann

How often in U.S. history have the various states gone to the U.S. Supreme Court asking the Federal Government to assume more power?  The answer is not very often, as Star Phoenix Base readers can imagine.  However, in a few days the State of California will join with a dozen other states in arguing before the Court for more Federal regulation of carbon dioxide emissions.  More specifically, the states will be asking that emitted carbon dioxide be defined as air pollution under the Clean Air Act.  It is not so defined today.

The cause of this effort on the part of the states is an industry counterattack on proposed new auto exhaust regulations slated to take effect in California in a few years.  For a generation the land of the freeway has led the nation in envronmental lawmaking and much of what is now Federal Law started its run in California.  The state continues in that leadership role today and is attempting to tighten emission requirements for automobiles, as the Los Angeles TIMES reported yesterday.  Below is the first of a few selected quotes from the TIMES article:

Four years ago, California adopted stricter rules. The state Legislature declared its intent to “achieve the maximum feasible and cost-effective reduction of greenhouse gas emissions” from motor vehicles. These standards for new cars and trucks are to take effect in 2009.

The basis for this was a special provision in the Clean Air act, one that acknowledged the special problems of the Los Angeles area, nation’s leader in bad air. 

Because of California’s notorious smog problem, Congress permitted the Golden State to adopt stricter exhaust standards for cars and trucks under a special provision in the federal air pollution laws of the 1970s. 

The problem now revolves around some of those “greenhouse gases” like carbon dioxide, which are the product of all oxidation, including that which goes on inside our own bodies.  The current Clean Air Act and EPA guidelines do not directly state that CO2, even that from auto exhaust pipes, is “air pollution” and on that basis the Bush Administration has refused to take direct action to regulate it.  It’s also on that basis that the auto makers are taking court action.

The legality of California’s new vehicle emission standards remains in doubt. They must be approved by the EPA. But the agency has yet to do so, mostly because of its view that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are not air pollutants under the Clean Air Act.  The automakers have sued to block California’s rules, citing the EPA’s stand 

And so it is that California is going to court, to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that CO2 emitted from auto exhaust is air pollution and so can and must be regulated. 

What will the court decide?  No one knows.  But the result will be of great importance, for several reasons.  First, if the CO2 emitted from automobiles is not air pollution, and not able to be regulated here in the U.S., that will doom any significant government action to reduce U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases.  This is so because methane, the second most important greenhouse gas, is a “natural” substance just like CO2. 

Will common sense prevail at the Supreme Court?  Perhaps.  However, this writer is not holding his breath waiting for a good outcome from that particular quarter of Foggy Bottom. 


About Val

I am a long-time teacher of science and astronomy with a strong interest in resource conservation and the environment.
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