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PHAI Publishes Case Study of the California Clean Cars Law

April 2nd, 2010

PHAI document the nation’s first piece of legislation, known as the “California Clean Cars Law,” which requires a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicle tail pipes. The state of California enjoys a special status under the federal Clean Air Act, allowing it to regulate vehicle emissions so long as it receives a waiver from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) of Clean Air Act preemption. California’s legislation was especially important for its potential national implications—under the Clean Air Act, other states can implement standards identical to California once an EPA waiver is granted.

Proponents understood and anticipated the legal challenges their initiative would face from the auto industry. Several express limits on the implementing state agency’s authority were added to the bill to satisfy the opposition and reduce the risk of legal challenges. The law’s findings section was specifically designed to meet the EPA waiver requirement of “compelling and extraordinary” circumstances, focusing on California’s particular vulnerability to climate change. Thus, the strategy of compromising on the legislation and delegating the details of implementation to a strong state agency (with only eleven voting members) was largely successful.

 The initiative benefited enormously from having a determined and media savvy legislative champion, a diverse coalition of outside supporters, the eventual support of the leadership of both the State Assembly and the State Senate, and support from two consecutive state governors. The role of the governors was also a pivotal factor, giving the allocation of resources needed to defend expensive, complex and lengthy legal challenges.

 The proponents benefited from their early courtroom victories. At least one of the decisions (the U.S. Supreme Court ruling recognizing EPA’s jurisdiction to regulate CO2) may well have been a welcome surprise. Despite their careful preparation, proponents did not appear to predict the historic denial by the EPA of waiver to allow the California law to be enforced. A waiver under the Clean Air Act had never been denied to the state of California before.  The current administration allowed the waiver. 

 Another important lesson is the proven value of concerted collaboration between environmental, public health, faith and business groups. Such collaboration was a key ingredient in the success of the California Clean Cars Law, particularly at the legislative level. Many public health initiatives have potential co-benefits and multiple constituencies. The collaboration inspired by the California Clean Cars Law demonstrated the potential for success when cross-cutting constituencies join forces to achieve mutually agreed upon goals. The resulting synergy multiplies the political and financial capital available to proponents, especially when faced with industry opponents that have tremendous resources at their disposal.

 Finally, the Clean Air Act’s approach to preemption—permitting a leading state to adopt more stringent standards than the federal government, which may also be followed by other states—could prove to be particularly important to emerging public health policy and laws, especially in the area of climate change. Among its advantages, this model recognizes and encourages states with a strong track record of innovation to develop and test potential solutions. This indicates that states are prepared to form coalitions and commit considerable resources to help raise public health and environmental standards nationwide.

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