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California Should Lead Again on Emissions Standards

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Despite another round of $4 gasoline and a continuing surge of consumer interest in high-mileage cars, the auto industry is trying to slither out of tougher fuel efficiency and emissions standards. California can put things right.

By writing the nation's first global warming emissions rules nearly a decade ago under the Pavley law, the state set a groundbreaking path for the United States in the fight against global warming. A dozen states, and ultimately the federal government, followed.

Now it is time for California to reprise its leadership role with tough, new rules.

The Obama administration is in the throes of the biggest environmental decision it will face before Election Day: How much it will cut emissions in new vehicles sold from 2017 to 2025.

The auto industry has pressured the federal government to set weak standards that would cut emissions no more than 3 percent a year. Environmentalists and national security groups favor a 6 percent annual cut. By comparison, the standards that the new rules will replace cut emissions 5 percent a year. Senior administration officials will make the key decisions in coming weeks. President Barack Obama is expected to announce the new rules in September.

A 6 percent reduction in global warming pollution would result in a U.S. fleet that averages 62 mpg by 2025, up from 35.5 mpg in 2016, saving consumers $645 billion at the pump in 2030.

It's a smart investment. The technology needed to produce these gains would cost $3,500 per car -- but, those changes would deliver $9,700 in reduced gasoline bills over the car's life, according to a 2010 study by the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That's cheaper than free.

Applied nationally, strong rules will deprive foreign oil producers, big time. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy estimates that a yearly 6 percent improvement will keep $16 billion out of foreign hands in 2025.

Enter California, once more in a unique position to influence Washington thanks to the emissions-cutting Pavley law.

The auto industry turns apoplectic at the mere mention of California setting its own auto rules. The companies want one national standard, preferably one they control.

That desire for a single standard gives Gov. Jerry Brown and the Air Resources Board a strong hand. By moving ahead with its own rules, California can bolster the Obama administration's negotiating position with the auto industry.

Indeed, Brown and the air pollution agency might even achieve the best result -- strong nationwide standards issued in Washington -- by merely proposing to act. Remember: The last time California took the lead, the auto industry caved. Rather than deal with strong California rules and weaker federal regulations, it acquiesced to what became strong nationwide standards that matched California's.

For Brown and the Air Resources Board, using their leverage to achieve strong national standards means that with one major step they can help bring down Californians' gasoline bills, fight climate change and force the auto industry to behave reasonably.

To be sure, there are Republican threats in Washington to dismantle California's authority, under the Clean Air Act, to set its own pollution standards. Forget about 'em. There are sufficient congressional votes -- Democrats do control the Senate -- to prevent that.

But the Obama administration is making crucial decisions now. There is little time to lose. If California does not act quickly, it will have no opportunity through 2025 to use this authority and set its own strong emissions standards. If the state declines to send a clear signal now, it will risk being hobbled for years by whatever weak action Washington chooses.

This commentary originally appeared in the Sacramento Bee.

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