Sunday, May 3, 2009




Anyone who visits Athens, Greece or Haifa, Israel or Barcelona, Spain or Tokyo, Japan this year will surely notice that visibility is far greater and the air far cleaner than it was five to 10 years ago.

All because of California. As far back as the early 1960s, this state became the first major area in the world to do something about smog, the lung-damaging, eye-stinging combination of air pollutants first linked definitively to automobiles by the Dutch-born Caltech scientist A.J. Haagen-Smit.

His finding led to the first smog control devises and later to catalytic converters and eventually to hybrid cars, all tactics eventually adopted by the rest of America and later by most of the world. Along the way, every anti-smog measure proposed for California was opposed by carmakers or oil companies or both. They called each one a "job-killing measure," even if they didn't use that specific modern epithet.

California's leadership role became assured when Republican President Richard Nixon signed the federal Clean Air Act of 1970. This measure recognized California's special smog problems, seen most vividly in Southern California and the Central Valley.

But the state's leadership role was stymied lately by the George W. Bush administration's steady refusal to believe global warming and climate change represent any threat to the United States or to humanity as a whole.

That was why the federal Environmental Protection Agency under Bush refused to provide the previously automatic approval given to new California air quality measures after this state's Legislature passed and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006 signed the landmark AB32, aiming to place California in the forefront of fighting global warming.

But now, as baseball player Manny Ramirez put it on re-signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers, "We're baaaaack."

Because current President Barack Obama sees California as the paragon of energy saving and environmental pioneering that it really is, not only will the EPA quickly approve the new low carbon fuel standards passed by the state Air Resources Board (ARB) this month, but they will almost certainly be followed by federal rules that might prove even more ambitious.

On Earth Day in Iowa, Obama pointed out that "over the last several decades, the rest of the country, we used 50 percent more energy; California remained flat, used the same amount, even though they were growing just as fast as the rest of the country - because they were more energy efficient. They put in good policy early on."

Those policies were instituted by both the state Energy Commission (requiring more efficient appliances) and the ARB, starting during the 1970s when Democrat Jerry Brown was governor.

The new low carbon fuel rules just adopted mandate that fuel used in ordinary gasoline engines, power generation, jet airplanes and diesel engines emit less climate-changing carbon beginning two years from now. Over 10 years, the cut would have to reach 10 percent or more.

Most oil companies (the exception: California-based Chevron) opposed the new rules, claiming they can't do the job in the time allowed - essentially the same futile and inaccurate claim the automakers have made for decades.

Ethanol and biodiesel producers also had a problem with the new rules' insistence that authorities count not only the carbon emitted when burning fuels. Rather, the ARB insists on considering also how much carbon is produced or released in all aspects of producing fuels.

This could put ethanol at a disadvantage because forests in many parts of the world have been cut down to make way for ethanol-producing cornfields and American producers who don't chop down trees believe they're being treated unfairly. This area could see some rule tweaking.

As in previous rulemaking exercises, opponents claim the new regulations will produce higher prices. But the ARB contends they'll force prices lower by compelling use of alternative fuels and energy sources. This is another argument echoing previous disputes over new California rules. In the past ARB scientists have usually been at least close to correct in their estimates of what can be done, when and for how much money.

The bottom line: California has been a smog-fighting example to the world for almost 50 years and has now emerged as the leader in fighting global warming by considering not just what comes out of cars and trucks, but also what goes into their tanks.

That should be important even for folks who don't believe global warming is at least in part a man-made phenomenon. For whether the cause is natural or not, it makes no sense to allow human activity to worsen the matter.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit

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