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August 7, 2007 7:50 AM, EDT

Senate Panel Gives EPA October Deadline to Rule on Calif. Carbon Emissions Request

By Andrea Fischer, Staff Reporter

This story appears in the August 6 print edition of Transport Topics

Just weeks after Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen Johnson said he would delay ruling on California’s nearly 2-year-old request for approval to limit vehicle emissions of greenhouse gases until the end of the year, a Senate committee passed a bill directing him to decide by October.

The bill “sends a signal that EPA should stop stalling and act now on California’s request so California and . . . other states can begin setting and enforcing standards on carbon emissions from the transportation sector,” said California Sen. Barbara Boxer (D), who is chairwoman of the committee.

California applied in 2005 for its waiver, which the Clean Air Act requires before the state may set regulations more stringent than federal standards.

In April, the Supreme Court, in a case brought by several states seeking to pass greenhouse gas limits, ruled that EPA violated the Clean Air Act in declining to regulate those emissions, mainly carbon dioxide. Since then, Boxer’s Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has held hearings to pressure EPA to act on California’s request (4-9, p. 1).

Johnson told California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) in late June he would decide “by the end of the year” (7-2, p. 4) and in a July 26 hearing before Boxer’s panel, he said EPA was “performing rigorous analysis” of the state’s request (7-30, p. 2).

The committee’s July 31 bill would require EPA to issue a decision on all pending waiver requests, “no case later than Sept. 30, 2007.”

It also sets a 180-day time limit for EPA’s consideration of future waiver requests.

“This is an important step to get EPA to act in a more timely way on this issue, said Susan Sullam, spokeswoman for committee member Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.). “We need a ruling one way or the other, and this bill is aimed at getting EPA to move this issue forward.”

Cardin said the committee passed the bill in response to EPA’s failure to act on California’s waiver application for almost two years.

“I am deeply troubled by the EPA’s lack of action on the California waiver, which has a serious impact on Maryland and other states that want to adopt tougher standards,” Cardin said.

The Clean Air Act allows other states to adopt California environmental standards if California receives an EPA waiver.

California’s plan, signed by Schwarzenegger last September, would cut light vehicles’ greenhouse gas output up to 30% by 2016. Twelve other states — Connecticut, Florida, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington — have adopted California’s standard, pending EPA approval (5-28, p. 5).

EPA representatives did not return calls seeking comment.

California officials have said they would initially focus on cutting CO2 from automobiles, but then would turn their attention to fuel-economy standards for heavy-duty trucks (5-28, p. 5).

The bill will now move to the Senate floor, where it will be voted on as stand-alone legislation or as part of a broader bill, said a Boxer spokesman.

Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) introduced an identical bill in the U.S. House of Representatives July 18.

Christine Hanson, a spokeswoman for Inslee, said although that bill has not yet received a vote in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, “the vote on the Senate side is a great sign of support; we’re hoping that action will spur a vote on the House side.”

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the ranking minority member on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, has said he is an opponent of efforts by California and other states to act on climate change. Inhofe representatives contacted by Transport Topics last week would not comment on whether or not the senator would oppose the bill on the Senate floor. 
“In making a decision of this magnitude, it would be improper for EPA not to involve the public and formally solicit notice and comment,” said Inhofe in a July 26 statement. “I would be highly disturbed if EPA said that it planned to make a decision before the end of the year. Rushing this process is unacceptable.”