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California air chief blasts auto trade group over clean cars

February 7, 2011 |  1:39 pm

LA Traffic irfan khan freeway 210

California Air Resources Board Chairman Mary D. Nichols on Monday wrote to seven major automobile manufacturers, accusing their trade group, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, of misrepresenting the state's efforts to cooperate with federal officials on rules to curb greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks.

She asked the companies to "distance" themselves from the Washington-based group's efforts to "undermine ... standards that will provide American consumers with cleaner and more efficient vehicles."

"For the Alliance to suggest we are no longer committed to a cooperative effort is disingenuous at best, and incorrect," she wrote in a letter to the automaker CEOs, which was copied to the leaders of the congressional committees that oversee auto regulations.

Nichols' forceful rebuke comes as California, which has the right under the federal Clean Air Act to develop its own car emission standards, has pledged to coordinate its regulations for post-2016 car models with a parallel federal effort to hike fuel-efficiency standards.

But the issue has become more highly politicized than ever in the wake of the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives, with GOP members of Congress raising doubts about climate science and questioning the need for stricter curbs on carbon dioxide (C02) emissions from automobiles.

Scientists say that C02 and other greenhouse gases are trapping heat in the atmosphere and changing Earth's climate, leading to rising sea levels, more intense droughts and extreme weather events. California in 2006 passed the nation's most sweeping law to curb greenhouse gases, but federal legislation died in Congress last year.

In a Jan. 11 letter to Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) and Fred Upton (R-Minn.), the auto alliance charged that California is undertaking "unilateral action" in a "rushed effort toward a state rulemaking" that "is not on the spirit of a collaborative effort to develop a single national program for fuel economy/ghg standards."

Nichols noted, however, that in 2009 California adapted its standards for greenhouse gas emissions of 2012 to 2016 model years to dovetail with federal fuel-efficiency standards, so that the federal and state governments could issue a joint standard. Because there is no technology, such as a catalytic converter, that can trap carbon emissions from cars, the only way to reduce them, as required under the state's global warming law, is to hike fuel efficiency -- thus burning less gasoline.

California has also announced that it would delay issuing rules for 2017-2025 model years until September, rather than a scheduled March date, to accommodate the federal regulatory schedule.

"The unfortunate statements made by the Alliance undercut our continued cooperation," Nichols wrote the auto chiefs.

Gloria Bergquist, vice president of the Alliance, declined to respond to Nichols' charges directly, but said in an email, "We have been concerned that CARB announced its own rulemaking for 2017-2025, returning us to the old days of piecemeal, patchwork fuel economy standards.  So we were supportive when EPA and CARB recently announced that California was not going to be undertaking its own fuel economy rulemaking but instead would work with EPA on a proposal for September. Our goal is one national program for 2017-2025 that sets fuel economy at the maximum feasible level without negative impacts on affordability, jobs, safety and vehicle utility."

RELATED: California aligns with feds on clean cars

                EPA fuel economy labeling: a better way?

                Jerry Brown: a new direction on eco-issues?

-- Margot Roosevelt

Photo: Traffic on the 210 Freeway. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times