Clean-Air Standards: An End Run around Washington

Detroit was blindsided. Expecting an assault of environmental legislation from Washington this spring, the auto industry dispatched troops of lobbyists to the banks of the Potomac to make a stand, successfully defeating a push for stricter national fuel-economy standards. But the real threat came from the other coast. After environmental lobbyists worked their own contacts in California, the state senate approved a bill on May 2 that would force auto makers to sell cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars in the state by 2008. "I was elated," says Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope. "This was such a sharp contrast from how Congress has reacted to environmental legislation."

The California battle isn't over yet: The state assembly still needs to approve a final version of the measure, and Governor Gray Davis hasn't indicated whether he'll sign it. But if--as expected--the environmental lobby wins this skirmish, it may ultimately prove just as significant as a victory in Washington would have. Why? California is the only state that can create clean-air standards, since its laws predate federal regulations. But other states have the option of adopting California's rules. So the environmentalists plan to take the same legislation to like-minded Northeastern states and then deeper into the heartland, ultimately targeting key states such as Texas and Florida. "We have accepted the fact that environmental leadership is not coming from Washington," Pope says. "We will focus on consumers and the states."

It's a strategy that could work--and that has Detroit hopping mad. After defeating the federal measure that would have required auto makers to boost fuel efficiency in March, the industry thought it had wrapped up the issue. Now, though, Detroit may have to wrestle with the environmentalists in state capitals. In the past, California's clean-air and low-emissions laws have gotten a warm reception in New York and New England, where legislators have adopted California's existing limits on carbon monoxide, smog-causing nitrous oxide, and soot from cars. "Our biggest fear is that this becomes the battle we already fought and won at the federal level," says Gregory J. Dana, vice-president of environmental affairs for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers in Washington.

That's likely to happen, which could ultimately bring the battle right back to Washington. Since the auto industry doesn't want the stricter California standards adopted state by state, it might agree to somewhat tougher federal fuel economy and emissions laws. Says one General Motors Corp. insider: "We can't have 50 different states telling us how to build cars. That would be chaos." And that's exactly what the environmental lobby is counting on.

By David Welch in Detroit

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