California knows how to regulate

A short history of Californian efforts to stop air pollution, with a cameo by Ronald Reagan.

Published February 8, 2008 9:26PM (EST)

In 1973, the Democrat-controlled California Legislature passed a bill creating an Energy Commission. Its job: to "forecast energy demand, assess efforts to reduce this demand through conservation and efficiency, and provide a consolidated approval process for the siting of new power plants."

Gov. Ronald Reagan vetoed the bill.

But then came the OPEC oil embargo, and energy prices jumped. Reagan changed his mind, and a new bill, almost identical to the old one, became law in 1974. Today, Californians consume the same amount of electricity per capita that they did in 1975.

But Reagan didn't learn from his mistakes. After the Carter administration pushed for mandatory appliance efficiency standards, the Reagan administration opposed them with its "No Standard" standard -- until federal courts overturned that in 1985.

I learned these historical tidbits from a new paper, "California's Greenhouse Gas Laws," published in the current issue of the Review of Environmental Economics and Policy. In the paper, Michael Hanemann, a professor in the department of agricultural and resource economics at U.C. Berkeley, traces the evolution of California's ambitious greenhouse gas emissions laws, providing plenty of support along the way to explain why California has historically been allowed to set its own air pollution standards, above and beyond what the federal government mandates. (The study is not freely accessible -- but the abstract can be found here. Thanks to Environmental Economics for the link.)

California has always been way ahead of the feds in dealing with the challenge of air pollution.

With air pollution, the story starts with the appearance of smog in Los Angeles in the early 1940s. In 1945, the city passed an ordinance setting limits on industrial smoke emissions, and an air pollution control unit was formed within the municipal Health Department. In 1947, California passed a law authorizing the creation of county-level Air Pollution Control Districts and the Los Angeles County District (LAAPCD) was formed, the first of its kind in the nation. In 1959, California passed a law requiring the State Department of Public Health to establish air quality standards and necessary controls for motor vehicles. In 1960, the Motor Vehicle Pollution Control Board was established to test and certify devices for installation on cars sold in California. In 1961, the State Department of Public Health mandated positive crankcase ventilation on new vehicles sold in California starting in 1963, the first emissions controls in the nation. In 1964, the Motor Vehicle Board adopted tailpipe emissions standards for hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide starting in 1966. That year, the California Highway Patrol began random inspections of vehicle smog control devices. In 1967, a unified regulatory agency, CARB, was created.

The federal government didn't get around to proposing a clean air law until 1967.

Since 1967, California has made use of its federal exemption on at least sixteen occasions to introduce standards in advance of the federal government's regulation of motor vehicle emissions. These include the first introduction of NOx standards for cars and light trucks (1971), heavy-duty diesel truck standards (1973), two-way catalytic converters (1975), "unleaded" gasoline (1976), the low-emissions vehicles (LEV) program (1994 and 1998), zero-emissions vehicles (1990), and evaporative emissions standards and test procedures (1999).

And somehow, through it all, California's economy has thrived. So much for those economy-killing trade-offs that inevitably accompany legislation to protect the environment. Heck -- some automobile makers have even figured out ways to make money off of Californian environmental sensibilities.

Speaking of which: While doing errands in Berkeley on a rainy Saturday afternoon last weekend, my daughter and I counted 75 Priuses. That could be construed as overdoing it.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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