While all sides agree that Arizona’s air quality woes require a long-term fix, the latest effort to adopt a less stringent standard for curbing car emissions shows that the state program to combat air pollution is defined less by consistency and more by the winds of Arizona’s ever-changing political landscape.
Three years after Arizona decided to adopt California’s model, the Brewer administration is reassessing its position and is poised to opt for the somewhat less stringent federal standard.
The move puts the governor in a collision course with environmental groups, which fear their hard-won victory in 2008 is being upended and accuse policymakers of caving in to the wishes of the automobile industry.
“What has changed? The only thing that has changed is the governor,” said Sandy Bahr of the Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter, one of the groups opposed to the program’s repeal.
“The same arguments that are being made by the department and the Governor’s Office were made by the automobile industry previously, so I think it’s pretty easy to connect the dots,” Bahr said.
But the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality rejected the notion that the auto industry is driving the state’s air quality policies.
The California model has several components. It requires car manufacturers to sell a certain number of vehicles that do not emit greenhouse gases or conventional air pollutants and to reduce their fleet-wide vehicle emission levels each year.
These vehicles inevitably mean more cost to manufacturers, and they’re also more expensive than conventional cars, but supporters of the program point to their long-term benefits, such as fuel cost-savings to consumers and cleaner air.
In vigorously defending its proposal, ADEQ said it is driven by pragmatic considerations and is appropriately responding to lawmakers, who have set out how they want the agency to act.
ADEQ also argued that the proposed new standard, at its core, is substantially equivalent to the program currently in place.
The ongoing struggle to define how best to combat air pollution in Arizona is a stark reminder that the state’s approach to pollution control can sometimes be best summed up this way: It’s largely driven by who’s in charge.
At a public hearing on June 21 over the proposal to fall back on federal standards of curbing vehicle emissions, Donald Begalke, a former state employee, cut to the political chase.
“Being that there is an (Arizona) law involved with this process,” he said, “are you tied by politics that you’ll never be able to complete a clean air standard with respect to the health of our citizens?”
Begalke had posed the question to ADEQ officials who organized the hearing to get public input regarding the agency’s proposal for Arizona to drop the stricter California car emissions standards — known as the Clean Cars program — in favor of looser federal standards.
Arizona is one of 13 states that have adopted the California standards.
Begalke, now retired, was referring to a state law enacted in 2010 requiring air quality standards here to be no more stringent than federal standards — unless lawmakers expressly authorized the changes.
His question assumed that political gamesmanship and the ideological position of Republicans stands diametrically opposed to good public health policy.
But while many might argue the merits of that assumption, Begalke underscored the extent to which politicians, who often have to balance competing interests, decide how Arizona combats air pollution.
The 2010 law was partly driven by the Legislature’s desire to reassert its authority following former Gov. Janet Napolitano’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, including car emissions, which she sought to accomplish via an executive order.
That law also reaffirmed the Legislature’s attitude toward government regulation in general — that it’s anathema to economic growth.
When Napolitano, a Democrat, was governor, Arizona was friendlier to regional efforts to deal with climate change. Now that Republican Gov. Jan Brewer is in charge, Arizona policymakers have decided not to implement a landmark proposal to curb greenhouse gases that was advocated by the Western Climate Initiative, a collaborative effort by seven U.S. states and four Canadian provinces.
Last year, Brewer issued an executive order asking ADEQ to revisit the Clean Cars program, a move that led to the agency’s decision to recommend the program’s repeal.
The public hearing on June 21 was only one step in deciding the fate of ADEQ’s proposal.
The agency will have to respond to people’s comments. Ultimately, ADEQ Director Henry Darwin will recommend a course of action that the Governor’s Regulatory Review Council will consider.
A coalition of researchers, environmentalists and health care advocates are fiercely resisting the effort and have waged a high profile public campaign to dissuade ADEQ from pushing ahead.
The coalition said the Clean Cars program not only reduces air pollution and decreases the risks to public health, but it also saves consumers at the gas pump.
The program is credited for helping to introduce increasingly more fuel-efficient vehicles to the American market.
The coalition argued that the repeal is premature, especially since the federal government is ready to roll out new ozone standards and several counties here, including Maricopa, have already received an “F” for ozone pollution from the American Lung Association of Arizona.
The change of direction also led some to accuse Brewer of kowtowing to the wishes of the automobile industry.
In prepared remarks, Diane Brown, executive director of the Arizona Public Interest Research Group Fund, said ADEQ failed to provide data comparing the air quality benefits of adopting either the California model or the federal standards.
Brown also said the department did not substantiate its claim that following California’s model would negatively impact Arizona’s economy.
“In essence, in their recommendation to repeal, ADEQ slammed on the brakes without justification,” Brown said.
“Last year, the auto industry once again complained, and the Clean Cars program in Arizona was revisited.”
The Governor’s Office has yet to respond to the criticisms, but Trevor Baggiore, a deputy director at ADEQ, said the current federal standards, which were adopted after Arizona and several other states decided to follow the California model, are very similar to California’s.
Cars sold in California will be no different from cars sold here, and will only go through additional certifications in California, Baggiore said.
“We want cost-effective emission reduction, and the slight differences between these programs we just feel does not warrant the additional effort,” he said.
In fact, Baggiore argued, by adopting federal standards, the state will save money.
A case in point is California’s zero emissions standard, which requires manufacturers to sell vehicles that do not emit greenhouses gases or conventional air pollutants.
Necessarily, California has to develop the infrastructure, such as electric charging or hydrogen refueling stations, to support those vehicles at a significant cost that Arizona cannot afford, ADEQ argued.
The agency also pointed to the 2010 law on air quality standards as forcing the agency to make the change.
“We feel that it ties our hands and we don’t feel that there’s an argument to be made to the Legislature that there’s a reason to go with the California program, because (California’s and the federal government’s standards) are so similar,” Baggiore said.