Greening Minnesota cars

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Walk onto a lot at any car dealership in Minnesota today, and the cars you see will look pretty much the same as the cars sold across the border in Wisconsin or Iowa. A bill currently in the Legislature, however, might give cars sold in Minnesota a green tinge. The bill’s sponsors call it the Clean Car Act. If passed, it would direct Minnesota to adopt the emissions standards set by the California Air Resources Board, rather than the standards set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The bill is part of a “Green Solutions” package aimed at addressing global warming at the state level. If it passes, Minnesota will join a growing number of states choosing to follow the more stringent California standards. As a result, motorists would emit fewer greenhouse gases and save money on gas, while in some cases paying more up front for their vehicles.

Effects of the Clean Car Bill

The California standards would for the first time impose a limit on the amount of carbon dioxide that cars and light trucks can emit per mile. Existing standards cover only traditional pollutants, such as the compounds that cause smog. The new standards would, in effect, set a mileage standard for cars and trucks, different form the CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency Standards) set by the federal government.

Under the Minnesota Senate bill, vehicles sold in Minnesota would need to have lower greenhouse gas emissions starting with the 2010 model year; the House bill would start enforcing the new standards in 2012. By 2016, greenhouse gas emissions would be about 30 percent lower per mile. By 2025, the difference between the California standards and the federal standards could result in a cumulative 13 million fewer metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in the atmosphere, according to the Minnesota Climate Change Advisory Group appointed by Governor Pawlenty. For comparison, a report prepared for the same group estimates that in 2005 Minnesota’s emissions from on-road gasoline and diesel use totaled a bit under 30 million metric tons, and projected that figure to rise to 35 million metric tons by 2025.

Clean Energy Minnesota, a coalition of environmental groups and supporters, says Minnesotans would save more than $260 million on gas costs by 2025, even taking into account the higher sticker prices for more fuel efficient cars. Automakers have opposed the standards, arguing that it would dramatically increase costs, and that producing cars to meet two different standards would be prohibitively expensive.

The choice to adopt a California standard rather than the federal standard is embedded in the federal Clean Air Act. California started regulating automobile emissions in the 1950s, as a response to smog and other pollution in the Los Angeles area. In recognition of its pioneering work, the original Clean Air Act in 1963 gave California the right to enact its own standards, as long as the state standards were at least as strong as the federal standards.

The law also allowed other states to adopt the California standards. States cannot, however, design their own; they can only choose which of the two standards will apply. Thus legislators who want to make cars more fuel-efficient look to California to set the pace. Currently, 12 states have adopted the California standards. According to the Pew Climate Center, six other states, not including Minnesota, are in the process of joining them.

Trouble ahead?

For years, California has been engaged in legal battles with automakers and the Environmental Protection Agency over its right to regulate greenhouse gases. Automakers sued the state in 2003 to block the regulations from going forward, saying that only the federal government could impose a mileage restriction; those suits are still working their way through the court system.

At the same time, California and other states sued the EPA to force it to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The Supreme Court decided the case last spring. In Massacusetts v. EPA, the court ruled that the EPA does have authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases. It also said that the EPA’s stated reason for declining to do so was insufficient, and required it to revisit the decision. It stopped short, however, of ordering the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases.

Within this context the Environmental Protection Agency announced in December that it would deny California the waiver it needs to make the standards enforceable. On February 29, the EPA released its formal response. EPA administrator Steven Johnson argued that California did not face conditions “sufficiently different from conditions in the nation as a whole to justify separate state standards.” Congressional hearings led by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) revealed that Johnson denied the request against the advice of his legal and technical staff.

Even before the waiver request was denied, California and other states filed a lawsuit to force the EPA to grant it the authority to regulate vehicle greenhouse gas emissions. Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson joined the lawsuit on January 10, saying that she wanted to ensure that Minnesota had the option to adopt the standards should it choose to do so. Meanwhile, the Clean Car Act, authored by Melissa Hortman (DFL – Brooklyn Park/Coon Rapids) in the House, and by John Marty (D – Roseville) in the Senate, continues to move through the Legislature.

Brian Peterson is pursuing a Master’s of Public Policy degree at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. He is concentrating in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy.

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