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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Winter 2006 : Frontlines


State of Change
California has among the strictest automobile emissions regulations in the country, and additional states are poised to follow suit to bring forth an increasingly necessary change..

by Jeff Orloff

As one-third of all carbon dioxide emissions come from tailpipe exhaust, it is the leading source of air pollution. Known as the most prevalent of the greenhouse gases (GHG), pollutants from automobiles are considered to be a key contributor to global warming. And with California making up 10 percent of the automotive market in the United States, the state has quite a bit to be concerned about.

According to California’s Air Resources Board (ARB), the state has already begun to see the effects of climate change from global warming. The sea level along the west coast has risen between three to eight inches over the last century. The effects of this have ARB worried, as a rise in sea level can cause storm surge flooding, threatening the coastal population and wetlands. Additionally, beach and cliff erosion are concerns as is saltwater contaminating the drinking water supply.

And if this weren’t enough cause for concern, over the last hundred years, the annual runoff from the Sierra Nevada Mountains has shown a 10 percent decrease. This, ARB believes, is a direct result of a smaller snow pack in the mountain range. At the current rate, California expects to see a 10-degree temperature increase over the next 100 years, according to a National Academy of Sciences study.

Enter Assembly Bill 1493, or the Pavley Law, named for the bill’s main author, Fran Pavley. This bill, which passed in 2002 and was signed by then-Gov. Gray Davis, gives ARB the authority to reduce GHG emissions in the state. As a result, ARB has put forth regulations requiring the auto industry to cut exhaust from cars and light trucks by 25 percent, and large trucks and sport utility vehicles by 18 percent. The automotive industry will have until 2009 to begin introducing technology for exhaust reduction, and must be in full compliance by 2016.

Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is in full agreement. “We know the science, we see the threat, and the time for action is now,” Schwarzenegger said in a June 2005 executive order. In addition to his unwavering support, Schwarzenegger has pledged to fight any of the lawsuits threatened by the automotive industry.

The Domino Effect
Unlike other states, California has the right to call for stricter regulations in an effort to curb pollution under the federal Clean Air Act. Other states can then opt to follow either federal regulations, or the stricter California regulations. This right has been exercised before: In 1970, California pioneered the use of catalytic converters on automobiles to control emissions. The catalytic converter is now standard equipment on all automobiles.

California understands the importance of being a leader on environmental issues. “If it weren’t for California, the environment would be much worse in this country,” said Roland Hwang of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It puts pressure on the auto industry and Washington to come up with a solution.”

As with the catalytic converter, California is hoping other states will follow its lead. Currently, the West Coast neighboring states of Washington and Oregon are set to adopt the stricter California standards. This would mean that all cars sold along the West Coast’s three states would have to emit 30 percent less carbon dioxide, 20 percent fewer toxic pollutants, and up to 20 percent fewer smog-causing pollutants by 2016. On the East Coast, Vermont is leading the charge under Gov. James Douglas (D) citing that, “Vermont is a leader in air quality.” Maine, too, is joining Vermont’s lead, as Gov. John Elias Baldacci (D) is moving toward California regulations as well. And not all are merely following California’s lead. New Jersey has called for air quality rules that classify carbon dioxide emissions as a pollutant, a step the federal government has refused to take.

But it is not only the Democrats who are siding with Schwarzenegger. Many fellow Republicans are joining the fight as well. The governors of Connecticut and Rhode Island, both Republicans, are also following Vermont’s lead to adopt California’s emissions regulations. Sen. John McCain from Arizona and Conn. Sen. Joseph Liebermann, a moderate Democrat, proposed the Climate Stewardship Act back in 2003. The Act calls for “tailpipe trading,” under which manufacturers are given credits that can be banked should a future fleet of automobiles fall short of regulations. In this case, any saved credits can be used to prevent financial losses.

So far, Schwarzenegger’s strongest GOP ally seems to be Gov. George Pataki of New York. Not only has Pataki called for New York to reduce GHG emissions by adopting California’s standards, but the state will adopt an early reduction credit program so that fleets in model years up to 2008 that meet or surpass 2012 regulations can bank credit for any future compliance deficit. Pataki’s Department of Environmental Conversation believes that this will help to reduce the GHG emissions from carbon dioxide by 14,855,500 equivalent tons by the year 2020, and 26,280,000 equivalent tons by the year 2030 in the state of New York alone. He believes so much in these standards that he co-authored a letter to Congress with Schwarzenegger asking it to uphold California’s right to create stricter air quality standards in hopes that this may help California in any future legal battles with the automotive industry.

Opposition Remains
But not all Republicans are embracing these beliefs. Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney recently announced that he would pull his state out of a compact of Northeastern states, led by Pataki, which would work to combat GHG emissions. In 2003, Sen. Christopher Bond (R) of Missouri sought to use a federal spending bill to prevent California from setting tougher air pollution standards. In 2004, Bond instructed the National Research Council to study the technical aspects of California’s motor-vehicle emission standards, citing that these standards could cause lawnmower-engine and outdoor-equipment manufacturers to move their plants overseas. The Bush administration does not endorse the California plan, either. A major talking point of his administration is that capping carbon dioxide would cost America many jobs.

The automotive industry has offered quite a few points against these standards as well. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers has estimated that the cost to meet new emission standards will add about $3,000 to each new car. Pundits argue that the cost is more around $1,000, and would be offset by lower fuel costs. Not only are dollars and cents the argument. According to AAM spokeswoman Gloria Bergquist, introducing the technology to meet these standards would be “almost as complicated as developing the first automobile.” She went on to further state that the reduction in worldwide GHG emissions would only equate to “one-tenth of 1 percent.” Further arguments state that carbon dioxide is emitted by humans each time we breathe and is necessary in the photosynthetic process of plants. And although Schwarzenegger has sworn that there would be no taxes associated with this plan, his top advisers announced in early December that a 2.5-cent-per-gallon “public goods charge” may be needed to help pay for this endeavor.

With the first wave of regulations from the Pavley Law going into effect in the early part of 2006, Schwarzenegger and his allies seem determined to put up a fight. And as mid-term elections approach, support for California’s right to set higher air quality standards—and the need to reduce the estimated 6.2 billion metric tons of GHGs the United States is expected to emit in the year 2010—promise to be fodder for the upcoming debates.

Jeff Orloff is the associate editor for Green@Work magazine. He can be reached at

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