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Appeals Court Rules Californi-missions Standards Can Stay High

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It all started in the early 40’s, when the smog was so bad in California that visibility was measured in city blocks, and people suffered from nausea, stinging eyes, and difficulty breathing. By the 50’s, the California government had shut down some refineries and smoke-stack power plants, but the smog persisted. Finally, chemists discovered that some of California’s most famous and hallowed assets were combining with California’s disproportionate share of gas-powered cars to create the problem; the ubiquitous ‘golden’ sunshine was reacting with the compounds released from combustion engines to create smog, and the topography of California’s numerous mountain ranges was trapping air in their valleys. 

California, it turns out, was a victim of its own excess — more land, more sun, more cars, more pollution.

In fact, when the U.S. government enacted the landmark Clean Air Act of 1967 (CAA), setting the first national standards for emissions, it recognized the particular obstacles facing the Sunshine State, and enacted a waiver, permitting California to set its own standards for emissions — separate, distinct, and more strident than the standards set for the rest of the country by the EPA. Other states could then follow the EPA, or California, but not set their own standards.

The waiver has largely been undisturbed over the ensuing decades, except a handful of times, most notably in 2008 when the Bush Administration refused to grant the waiver, and more recently in 2019 when the Trump Administration revoked the waiver only to see it restored in 2022 by the Biden Administration.

As recently as this week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reaffirmed California’s right to set its own emissions, denying a lawsuit brought by neighboring Republican states. In its decision, the court pointed out that the challenging states failed to demonstrate how California’s imposition of its own standards would materially harm their states’ interests.

While California’s unique status as a ‘laboratory’ for pioneering progressive emissions practices is reaffirmed and ‘safe’ for now, it is becoming an increasing political issue, expected only to lead to more and larger legal battles, as climate change looms large over the Pacific Coast.