The federal government has turned down California's plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars.
The Environmental Protection Agency said Wednesday it would not grant the state a waiver to implement tough tailpipe standards. California and 17 other states want these rules to help them fight global warming.
California has the most aggressive strategy of any state in the nation to curb climate change. The centerpiece is a plan to reduce tailpipe emissions by nearly a third by 2016, but the state needed the EPA's approval to go ahead.
"His (Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's) state does not meet the compelling and extraordinary conditions needed to grant a waiver for motor vehicle greenhouse gas emission standards," agency administrator Steven Johnson told reporters in a conference call.
The EPA has never before rejected a request from California to set tougher air pollution standards, but Johnson said this time is different because climate change is a global problem.
"California's not exclusive in facing this challenge," he said.
Threat of Lawsuit Looms
But Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, said global warming is a compelling enough issue to warrant California's quick, comprehensive response.
California officials said global warming threatens the state on several fronts. California's water supply is in jeopardy because of shrinking snow packs; rising sea levels are eroding the state's coasts; and the number of wild fires is increasing.
Nichols said the state is prepared to challenge the EPA's decision in court.
"We intend to persevere and to prevail," she said.
The EPA's decision came on the same day that President Bush signed a bill to increase how far cars must go on a gallon of gas. It raises average fuel efficiency to 35 miles per gallon by 2020. That measure will cut greenhouse gas emissions, but it won't cut them as quickly as California's plan.
Still, Johnson said the federal approach is the right way.
"The Bush administration is moving forward with a clear national solution — not a confusing patchwork of state rules — to reduce America's climate footprint from vehicles," he said.
Environmentalists are concerned that such thinking misses the clear message from the U.S. Supreme Court and two federal district courts.
Boxer Vows Legislation
The Supreme Court told the EPA earlier this year that it has the power and responsibility to regulate greenhouse gases from cars. The district courts rejected lawsuits by the auto industry arguing that California rules would conflict with fuel efficiency standards.
Vicki Patton, a lawyer for Environmental Defense, said one of the district judges ruled the auto industry's argument was folly.
"He said such an argument is the very definition of folly. I would say that given the imperative to address the global warming crisis, it's not just folly, it's tragic," Patton said.
The courts will not be the only venue in the fight to preserve California's rules.
Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, chairwoman of the Senate Environment Committee, said Wednesday that she will introduce legislation in Congress.
"Oh there's going to be tremendous fallout from this," she said. "Anyone (who) has a heartbeat and a pulse knows that global warming is a future crisis that we must avert — and we cannot lose time."
Any such legislation will be difficult to pass in an election year. The auto industry said it supports the EPA's decision, and industry leaders said they like the idea of one national standard.