Thursday, December 1, 2011




Climate change skepticism by one congressman among California’s 53 ordinarily doesn’t matter much. But coming from Darrell Issa, the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, it’s now leading to one of the most significant attacks ever on California’s lead smog-fighting agency, the state Air Resources Board (ARB).

Issa, representing a conservative north San Diego County district, does not dispute that the globe has warmed. It’s the pace of warming he questions, doubting that action is urgent. He also questions how much warming is man-made and whether the actions of one country alone can make much difference.

It doesn’t matter that his questions ignore scores of countries that have cut emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide by thousands of tons since the Kyoto protocol was signed in 1997. China and India have not taken significant action and that’s enough to make Issa wonder publicly whether any American actions can help, especially if they might negatively affect the economy.

It also doesn’t matter much that his skepticism questions individual moves by millions of Americans to cut their carbon footprints.

For Issa’s committee has legal authority to investigate anything and subpoena anyone short of the president and his immediate aides.

That includes Mary Nichols, chief of the ARB, which has had some recent problems but still has made the world's most important contributions to clean air, clean cars and clean industry. Issa fired off a 13-page letter to Nichols the other day demanding answers to questions that sometimes take on a have-you-stopped-beating-your-wife tone.

It’s all about the role Nichols and the ARB played in spurring national fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks for the upcoming model years 2017-2025.Underlying is the fact the 1971 federal Clean Air Act, originally signed by Republican President Richard Nixon, gives the ARB authority to enact regulations tougher than any federal standards.

With that in mind, automakers earlier this year agreed to fuel economy standards that Issa says will cost them more than $50 billion to fulfill, costs he says will be passed on to car buyers. Never mind that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says fuel economies under those rules will save consumers at least $311 billion more than the added cost of the more efficient cars.

The regulations, Issa claims, will also drive millions of jobs overseas.

Issa’s rhetoric closely resembles what carmakers claim every time California adopts a new clean air tactic, from the original smog control devices of the 1960s to catalytic converters in the 1980s and the 1990s low-emission rules that led to hybrids and electric cars.

Issa uses a technicality to question the ARB’s role. He notes that while the ARB and the federal Environmental Protection Agency can regulate tailpipe emissions, only the federal Department of Transportation can set fuel economy standards. But gas mileage goes up as carbon emissions go down. So by regulating emissions, the ARB and its federal cohort have actually regulated gas mileage, Issa says. Never mind that the secretary of Transportation has participated in every fuel efficiency announcement.

The congressman cites testimony from the head of the car sales and review Web site, who told Issa’s committee this fall that automakers “felt they had a gun to their head” from the ARB when they agreed to the new federal emission standards. Of course, the Clean Air Act specifically gave California the authority the automakers feared.

Among Issa’s questions to Nichols:

-- Do you believe that a closed and secretive process is the best approach for regulating (the automobile industry)?

-- Under what express statutory authority is California setting fuel economy standards, a task delegated to (Transportation)?

-- Do you believe that when Congress enacted…the Clean Air Act, (it) intended California regulators to establish fuel economy standards for the national fleet?

Issa is correct that no one can mandate serious cuts to

emissions without also increasing gas mileage. Here’s a question for him: Does he really think the authors of the Clean Air Act and its several revisions and renewals didn’t know that and intend the ARB’s actions to have that effect?

Issa’s committee has the power to expose wrongdoing of all kinds and maybe he thinks that’s what he’s doing here. But his actions could also set him up as a foe of America’s efforts to become energy self-sufficient. Does he really want that as a legacy?

The upshot is that no matter what transpires at Issa’s eventual hearings, it will not have any immediate effect on the fuel efficiency rules. Yes, the House could vote to reverse them, but no such bill would pass the Democratic-controlled Senate, and even if it did, President Obama would veto it instantly.

But what if Republicans win control of both houses of Congress next year and also take the White House? That’s when Issa’s actions could start to matter.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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