Yesterday's Senate hearing on California's request for a waiver from federal preemption of its greenhouse gas emission standards for new motor vehicles was largely a platform for California Attorney General Jerry Brown and Committee Chair Barbara Boxer (D-CA) to complain about Bush Administration intransigence on climate change and failure to act on the waiver before now. It was not designed, or intended, to be a serious discussion of the issues. [This was not particularly unusual, as many Congressional hearings are political theater of this sort.]
According to Brown and Boxer, the EPA's failure to grant the waiver blocks California from acting to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is simply not the case. Whether or not California is precluded from adopting vehicle emission standards under the Clean Air Act (or the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, which may preempt the California rules irrespective of what the EPA does), there are many other actions California can take. If vehicular emissions of carbon dioxide are of the greatest concern, California could increase its gasoline taxes. This could produce far greater emission reductions in substantially less time than phasing in standards for new vehicles between 2009 and 2016. Such a policy is less attractive to California politicians, however, because it would impose clear costs on California consumers. A significant portion of the cost of emission standards for new vehicles, on the other hand, would fall on consumers and producers in other states. That portion of the costs borne in California would be folded into the cost of new cars and trucks. This is why California politicians would rather fight with Washington over federal preemption than take more direct action to curtail fossil fuel energy use.
The most interesting thing about yesterday's hearing for me personally was meeting Jerry Brown, the current attorney general and former governor of California (not to mention the former mayor of Oakland). After the hearing was officially over, we discussed the merits of California's waiver request for a bit about the waiver and climate change policy more broadly. He wants a waiver, to be sure, but he'd also be happy if the federal government adopted stringent vehicle emission standards of its own. I was struck by his genuine intellectual interest in the legal questions, apart from his political interests and policy preferences. I am sure Brown deserves his idiosyncratic reputation, but I left our encounter quite impressed.
The written statements and an archived webcast of the hearing are here. The Los Angeles Times and Washington Post also covered the Senate hearing, as well as the administrative hearing held by the EPA.
UPDATE: I have an NRO column on the waiver issue here.