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Calif. prepared to enforce tailpipe rule this year, top regulator says

California would begin regulating automobiles' greenhouse gas emissions in the current model year if U.S. EPA grants a waiver allowing it to enforce the rule, the state's top environmental regulator said yesterday.

Mary Nichols, the chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, said carmakers would be forced to meet 2009 model year averages of 323 grams of carbon dioxide emissions per mile for passenger cars and 439 grams per mile for large trucks and sport utility vehicles.

"Based on the data we have seen, we believe the auto companies can meet the standards for 2009 and 2010, and we would hope that they would," Nichols told reporters after a tour of the Washington Auto Show.

The emissions standards for model years 2009 through 2016 were adopted by CARB in August 2005. They would force automakers to reduce C02 emissions from new cars and trucks by 30 percent by 2016. Because the standard for each model year affected by the law uses a year-end "backward look" at each carmaker's in-state sales, California would could still enforce this year's standard, Nichols said.

California would consider postponing the start of enforcement if sales data show it would be impossible to hit the 2009 mark, she said. "But with what we know today," she added, "we don't think so."

A federal judge ruled last summer that the state would not have to give automakers extra time to comply with the emissions law (Greenwire, June 25, 2008).

Though the auto industry stresses that a U.S. EPA review could uphold the Bush administration's rejection of the waiver request, Nichols expressed confidence the Obama administration would side with California. "We very strongly believe we have established that we are entitled to the waiver based on law," she said.

Nichols said CARB and EPA have had staff conversations concerning the timeline for the review, which she expects to end in June. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson is expected to open the public comment period on the waiver request in the coming days, Reuters reported today.

California would welcome harmonious state and federal emissions standards, Nichols said, but the state plans to move on its own regulations until the federal government adopts a stricter standard.

"EPA's rulemaking process is a lot slower than ours," she said. "Even with all the work they've already done, I don't think it's possible for them to set a greenhouse gas emissions standard for the year 2009 or 2010, or even 2011. In the meantime, we do have standards, and we just need to be allowed to enforce them."

California would be willing to consider future action to lessen compliance burdens on industry -- such as adopting regional requirements for several states -- but that should not be part of the waiver review, Nichols said. "We don't believe it is appropriate for there to be compromise -- that is, either you get a waiver or you don't get a waiver," she said.

California is the only state allowed by the federal Clean Air Act to enforce its own pollution standards -- but only with a waiver from EPA. If California gets the waiver for the tailpipe rule, other states would be permitted to enforce the same standard.

Thirteen states have moved to adopt the California standards, with another four indicating they will follow if the waiver is granted. The 18 states represent about half of the U.S. auto market.

The auto industry has been fighting to block the waiver request for years, arguing that it would create a "regulatory patchwork" that would depress already-slumping sales and limit consumers' choices.

In an effort to persuade states not to impose the California standards, the industry has embraced new corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, standards and contends that any emissions regulation should be on the national level.