Peter Valdes-Dapena CNN Business
The influential California Air Resources Board recently approved new regulations requiring all vehicles sold in the state to be electric, hydrogen, or at least plug-in hybrids by 2035. In addition, 17 other states have agreed to follow suit, and many of these states may also adopt these requirements, at least in part, using California's air pollution as an example.
A key part of federal broadcasting regulations since the early 1970s has been the so-called California state exception. California, the only one of the 50 US states, has the right to set its own vehicle emission standards. No other state can do this, but other states can, if they choose, follow California's emission standards rather than the less stringent federal standards.
States that follow California in emission standards tend to be more densely populated, such as New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. But Nevada and New Mexico also accepted it. Together, these states account for over a third of U.S. car sales and about 40% of the population. It's not clear if all these states, like California, will ban the sale of cars without a port or hydrogen tank after 2035, but if something does, it could be most of the country.
It seems strange that one state, California, has so much power to set its own climate and emissions policy that it can influence other states. Reasons for over 50 years. The main reason is that California has long had air quality problems for a number of reasons.
“They had a lot of cars and these damn mountains,” said Harvard environmental law professor Richard Lazarus.
With sprawling urban and suburban areas that encourage driving and mountain ranges that trap air and pollution, parts of California also have plenty of sunshine that fuels chemical reactions that exacerbate pollution.
"I'm a third-generation Angeleno representative and I remember growing up when the skies were clear… you could barely see the street," said Los Angeles-based attorney Alan Marks, who works in renewable energy and transportation.
The history of the California Air Resources Board and the Environmental Protection Agency, the federal agency that regulates emissions, centers on two people you might not consider part of the environmental vanguard: Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. Both are now known as staunch conservative Republicans, and in today's America this often signifies opposition to environmental regulations.
But in 1967, it was then California Governor Reagan who signed the creation of the California Air Resources Board. The new agency was created through a merger between the California Air Sanitation Administration and the California Motor Vehicle Pollution Control Board. By that time, California had already adopted the first national emission standards.
These early vehicle emissions regulations pushed federal standards to prevent other states from following suit, Lazarus said. The fear was that there might eventually be 50 different emission standards and that one federal standard, the Clean Air Act of 1970, would be preferable.
“Before the Clean Air Act was passed in the 1950s, there was federal air quality legislation,” Marks said. “But the most the federal government did was just study the problem.”
In 1970, President Richard Nixon also created the Environmental Protection Agency, which brings together the work of various federal agencies to study and regulate all types of pollution. The EPA monitors and enforces the Clean Air Act.
“The big question of the 1970s is should we surrender to our environment or should we come to terms with nature and start repairing the damage we have done to our air, land and water?” Nixon said in his hometown. “Union address that year.
By that time, California had already laid the groundwork for implementing its own rules, and it continued with the "California Waiver," a federal regulation that created this special exception for California. Since then, it has been repaired several times and usually without much fanfare. EPA administrators must have good reasons for denying a waiver, Lazouras said, and attempts to do so have been made but unsuccessful in the long run. The California weaver may be a bit of a problem, but that doesn't make it a potential nuisance. In the worst case, automakers must comply with two sets of rules, but at least not three, four, or even more different sets of rules.
According to Lazaro, at that time, environmental issues did not go beyond a clear party line. There are Republicans and Democrats who advocate clean air and water. According to Lazarus, Nixon's actions were partly intended to fend off a perceived political threat from environmentalists, although he later reversed course and fought some environmental regulations.
Another part of the Clean Air Act, passed in 1977, allowed other states, if their air quality did not meet federal standards, to follow California's stricter emission standards to improve air quality. (They are not allowed to create their own strict regulations.) So far, 17 other states have chosen to at least partially comply with California's emission standards. Together, they account for over 35% of all new car sales in America.
According to Marks, the automotive industry has been able to function well with the current system. It originally provided the stability required by the Clean Air Act and the creation of an exemption for California.
"Manufacturers are working closely with California trying to figure out how to meet the standards, what the standards should be," he said.
During his tenure, President Donald Trump went to court to overturn California's denial. This attempt failed, or at least failed, when Trump was impeached in the 2020 election, the administration of President Joseph Biden abandoned the attempt, and in March 2022, the California capitulation was renewed.
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