California's problem -- a lot of gas

Debra J. Saunders

7/24/2002 12:00:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders
California Assemblywoman Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, says that her bill to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for cars sold here will have California leading the world in the fight against global warming. Carmakers and conservatives say the bill will cost lives and interfere with Californians' goddess-given right to drive SUVs. Both sides probably are wrong. Still, Gov. Gray Davis had good reason to sign AB1493 Monday. On the politics, the bill is a no-loser. Despite all the accolades from the national press, the bill itself doesn't include tough new regulations. It passes the buck to the Air Resources Board to write new rules by 2005. So, Davis gets kudos for signing a bill with tough new regulations, even though it doesn't include any regulations at all. And there's no real downside. Consumers won't see their buying opportunities limited until 2009 model cars are out. By then, Davis will have had a chance to run for re-election and, if he wins, the White House. Meanwhile, AB1493 will provide beaucoup shakedown opportunities for Sacramento pols. After all, the measure requires that the air board write its new regs by 2005 -- then authorizes the Legislature to modify the new rules. It'll be open season on the checkbooks of car dealers and automakers. On a policy level, the bill has its positive and negative sides. On the plus side, AB1493 might prompt Washington to increase federal car fuel efficiency standards so that the vehicles people drive use less gas; despite technological advances, Washington has the same standards set in 1988. Forget global warming, since -- despite all the hype -- there is reason to question whether it is human-induced. Better gas mileage should reduce unhealthy air pollution, and reduce U.S. reliance on foreign oil. Also, since the legislation gives car makers credit for improvements they make today, perhaps one thinking automaker will see the wisdom in manufacturing upscale cars that aren't the size of young adult elephants. On the downside, since the bill targets greenhouse gases -- carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane and hydrofluorcarbons -- the new regs aren't likely to do much about bad air quality in California basins and the Bay Area. Peter Miller of the Natural Resources Defense Council, however, does see positive "indirect effects" on air quality from nitrous oxide reductions. Of course, much depends on the air board's formula -- and once again, despite the flurry of self-congratulation, no one knows what it will be. Besides, California is the karma state; and it's not good karma to tout global warming from a gas-guzzling machine. Too many Californians happily bash President Bush for not doing enough about global warming -- while they happily tool around town in their SUVs. (According to the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, 1 million of the 2.1 million new vehicle purchases in California in 2000 were light trucks or SUVs.) No wonder the rest of the country has been known to sneer at California -- the freewheeling state that prides itself on being so good and so green, while it drives so gassy. It's always someone else who isn't doing enough, never California. And if Californians aren't swearing off big wheels to live true to their big green ideas, well, it's someone else's fault for not passing a law forcing them to do so. So now there's a law.