An Empty Seat and an Empty Box

01/11/2008 05:45 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Los Angeles, CA -- Well, the chair set aside for EPA Administrator Steve Johnson is empty at Senator Barbara Boxer's hearing here on EPA's decision to deny California the right to implement its pioneering carbon dioxide air pollution standards for vehicles. I'm seated next to the empty chair, almost as if I were Johnson's staff support. I'm glad I'm not.

The file box that had been set aside for documents Boxer had requested from the EPA is also empty. The documents were to show why the agency made the decision it made. As it is, all she has from the EPA is a page-and-a-half letter expressing the Administrator's personal opinion that it would be better if California couldn't proceed, and that the state doesn't face any special challenges from global warming. California Attorney General Jerry Brown shoots that argument down, pointing out that the loss of the Sierra snow pack alone threatens 40% of the state's water supply. He urges Boxer to put Johnson under oath, because he is convinced that the Bush Administration cut a deal with the auto industry wherein, if Bush signed the Energy Bill containing 35-mpg fuel economy standards, he would then block California's rules, which would impose the equivalent of a 40-mpg standard (in the unlikely event that no more states adopt California's regulations), or 44-mpg, if all cars in the country must meet the standard (our goal).

In fact, the California standards eliminate twice as much greenhouse pollution, and faster, than the federal standards do, so that by 2020 it will have taken three times as much pollution out of the atmosphere as the federal compromise. In other words, as important as the congressional 35-mpg standard was, getting the California standard will more than DOUBLE the benefits -- so it's a huge battle.

Illinois Senator Barack Obama has already announced that he will grant the waiver to let California proceed if he becomes president. With the California Primary on March 5, and with Republican Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, already having taken EPA to court, I pointed out in my testimony that the state is well-positioned to insist that the rest of the presidential candidates join Obama. If they do, then we'll double the greenhouse gains from the CAFE improvements -- and we'll make it clear to the auto industry that regular, steady improvements in the reduction of greenhouse pollution need to be part of their business plans. And if one or more candidates refuse (likely in the case of Rudolf Giuliani and perhaps Mitt Romney) then, in fact, global warming could become a decisive issue, of all things in the Republican nominating process.

Johnson has told Boxer he will come to her next hearing, on January 24th. That should be fun.