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Bush Administration's Climate Change?

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This week, for the first time since he took office in 2001, George Bush and his administration offered two glimmers of hope in ongoing efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The administration agreed to commit to international talks to negotiate a post-Kyoto protocol treaty to take effect in 2012. Bush also signaled that he will sign an energy bill that will raise fuel efficiency standards to 35 miles per gallon, the first such increase in more than 30 years. Is this the beginning of at least a slight softening on climate policy overall? Though I'm pessimistic, given the Bush administration's abominable environmental record, the administration has the opportunity to demonstrate its new found environmentalism by allowing California to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles. Here's how.

California is the only state in the country authorized to regulate tailpipe emissions from automobiles. It gets this authority from the federal Clean Air Act, which simultaneously prohibits all other states from issuing their own tailpipe standards. Other states can, however, choose California standards rather than federal standards, which are less stringent than the golden state's. In 2003 California used its special authority to pass legislation requiring the state's air agency to issue regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars. The agency has now released its regulations, which will reduce carbon emissions by 22 percent by 2012 and 30 percent by 2016. Equally important, at least 12 states have chosen to follow the California standards.

But there's a hitch. California can't implement its standards unless the federal Environmental Protection Agency grants the state a waiver. A waiver looked highly unlikely until a hugely important U.S. Supreme Court decision, Massachusetts v. EPA, was handed down in April. In the case, the EPA argued that the Clean Air Act - the same statute that gives California the right to regulate tailpipe emissions - didn't authorize regulating greenhouse gas emissions from cars, only more traditional pollutants like carbon monoxide and oxides of nitrogen. The Supreme Court rejected that position. Now that the EPA's legal position has been rejected, its chief grounds for denying California's waiver have evaporated. And federal courts in both California and Vermont have tossed aside automakers' challenges to the new rules, holding that the states will have the right to implement their regulations if the EPA grants a waiver.

The administration's new tactic seems to be delay. California applied for the necessary waiver two years ago. The EPA has yet to take action on it despite holding hearings and despite the fact that the Supreme Court has resolved the legal questions hanging over the waiver request. The delay has become so egregious that California, joined by 14 other states, sued the EPA in federal court last month in order to force the agency to take action.

The Bush Administration ought to welcome California's efforts to reduce greenhouse gas tailpipe emissions. Republicans frequently complain about excessive federal regulation and argue that in a federal system states should be our laboratories of democracy. Here, the federal government has fallen down on the job. California and other states have stepped into the void, with the support of state politicians of both major parties and widespread support from the people those politicians represent. California should be given the authority to experiment with emissions reductions and see if they can be achieved cost effectively. And California's model for forcing reductions of carbon dioxide, if successful, can be used nationally, following a pattern the country has successfully used in reducing smog emissions. California's Republican governor wants the authority. Bush ought to give it to him.