The origin of many American environmental regulations can be traced back to the 1960's, when policy makers and scientists united in agreement that pollution and environmental degradation needed to be addressed. Over the next two decades much progress happened on that front, including but not limited to, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970, the Clean Air Act in 1970, the Clean Water Act in 1972, Endangered Species Act in 1973, the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the Toxic Substances Control Act in 1976, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act in 1980.
Before President Nixon created the EPA in 1970, there was one state that saw the need to address air pollution and took aggressive action. That state was California, acting under the leadership of Governor Ronald Reagan. The first recorded episode of smog in California was in Los Angeles in the summer of 1943, during which visibility was only three blocks and citizens suffered from nausea and burning eyes and lungs. At the time the smog was blamed on a nearby butadiene plant, but the smog persisted even after the plant was shut down. The newly formed Los Angeles County Air Pollution Control District started regulating power plants and oil refineries in 1947, but the smog did not lessen.
Finally, in the early 1950's, a bioorganic chemistry professor from Caltech, Dr. Arie Haagen-Smit, determined that automobile exhaust was to blame for smog. After this discovery California formed a Bureau of Air Sanitation within the California Department of Public Health and established air quality standards and set tailpipe emission standards.
Just a year later in 1967 Governor Reagan approved the Mulford-Carrell Air Resources Act, which created the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and committed the state to aggressively address air pollution. When the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970 the federal government recognized the work California had already done on air pollution as well as its unique geography, climate, and population, and gave the state the ability to set its own more stringent rules.
CARB has taken significant action since 1970 and has led the way on many important issues. A few highlights include that in 1974, CARB set the first nitrogen oxide (NOx) emission standards for cars - NOx gases react to form smog and acid rain - and those standards led to the development of the catalytic converter. In 1990, CARB passed a Zero-Emission Vehicle regulation that required manufacturers to produce an increasing number of zero-emission vehicles. In 2004, CARB approved the nation's first greenhouse gas emission standards for cars and in 2006, under Governor Schwarzenegger's leadership, CARB established a comprehensive set of regulatory and market mechanisms to reduce greenhouse gases.
California's ability to act independent of the federal government has been important in driving technological advancement and serving as a role model for other states and has been a key part of the United States' fight to mitigate the climate crisis. It's also important to know that although California is the only state that can set its own emission standards, other states may adopt them, and fifteen states have adopted the more stringent rules. In fact, more than 40% of the U.S. population, or 135 million people, are covered by the strict standards that California has adopted under this special waiver.
In April of this year, after an onslaught of rolling back environmental protections, the Trump administration announced that they were reexamining California's authority under the Clean Air Act. The then Chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, said that "it's in everyone's best interest to have a national standard" although that standard will have an almost immediate negative impact on those living in areas of California that are already struggling with poor air quality.
In addition to targeting California's authority to set its own emission standards, the EPA announced that they would abandon the national fuel economy target that required vehicles to average 55 miles per gallon by 2025 as set by the Obama administration. It’s unconfirmed but likely that the fuel economy target would instead freeze at the 2020 level of 35 miles per gallon. The national fuel economy standard is the single biggest action taken by the federal government to curb greenhouse gas emissions and is essential to meeting the goals set by the Paris Climate Accord, which California is still committed to even though the United States has abandoned the agreement.
It’s unclear how this issue will resolve itself, but it is clear how important this fight is. In 2016, the transportation sector edged out electricity to become the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in America. Emissions from the transportation sector will increase even more if California is forced to abandon its standards. America has become a nation completely reliant on cars and in order to keep our air clean and mitigate the advance of climate driven crises, we need to address that problem.