Paul Wellman (file)

Community Environmental Council alternative energy guru Tam Hunt blasted the recent decision by Environmental Protection Agency administrator Stephen Johnson to deny California’s request to impose even tougher fuel economy standards on cars and trucks as morally, politically, and practically insupportable. But legally, he said, there might be some basis for it, however contrived and tenuous.

Johnson denied the request earlier this week, arguing that there was no need because revisions to the Clean Air Act, just signed by President George Bush, increased the mileage requirement on new cars for the first time since 1975. Under the new law, all automobiles on American roads must achieve an average mileage of 35 miles per gallon by 2020. Under the state standards-adopted by the state legislature-all cars must get 36 miles an hour or more by 2016. And under the state approach, no averaging will be allowed; all cars must meet the standard.

Hunt said the EPA’s action was “ridiculous but predictable,” and estimated it will take at least two years before the matter can be heard and resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court. First it must get to the U.S., Court of Appeals in Washington D.C., which Hunt said a history of siding with government agencies. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has vowed to appeal the matter as have the governors of several other states.

The EPA’s Johnson said that it was important that the nation had one clear fuel economy standard for the automakers to achieve and warned against the confusion created by a “patchwork quilt” of requirements that vary from state to state. “That’s ridiculous,” Hunt said. “There is no patchwork quilt. There’s the national standard and then there’s California’s standard. That’s it. That’s hardly a patchwork quilt.” He noted that other states seeking more stringent fuel economy standards have adopted California’s.

While many environmental leaders throughout the nation have hailed the new federal fuel standards as a positive step forward, Hunt cautioned that it contains worrisome loopholes which he said might actually yield fewer miles per gallon. For example, the new federal bill gives special credits to cars designed to accommodate ethanol. But under California’s anti-greenhouse gas bill passed last year-AB 32-ethanol would be allowed only if the manner in which it was produced and shipped created a smaller carbon footprint. If the ethanol were produced from corn crops shipped from the midwest and grown with the aid of petrochemical fertilizers, the carbon footprint would be too big to meet California standards. But under the federal rules, there’s no mechanism to account for how many gallons of fuel are required to produce the ethanol in the first place. The second loophole, Hunt said, involves language in the federal bill requiring the fuel efficiencies to be averaged. Such an approach, Hunt warned, will be confusing in the extreme and ripe for abuse.

Hunt is leading the charge at the Community Environmental Council to devise ways for the South Coast to wean itself from fossil fuels to the maximum extent feasible.


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