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Why a vehicle emissions waiver for California makes sense
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There are 3,794,013 square miles in the United States.
Of those, 163,696 square miles are in California. We have five active volcanoes, glaciers, the lowest spot in the United States, the largest delta on the west coast of the hemisphere, the third highest miles of coastline among the states, the oldest living organism, the biggest as well as the tallest living things, desert, the highest point in the continental United States, 39.5 million residents or 12 percent of the nation’s population, and four major mountain ranges ringing the most fertile valley on the planet in terms of farm production.
The Central Valley has 18,000 square miles. If it stood alone it would be the 42nd largest state. There are 6.6 million residents in the valley. If it was a standalone state it would have the 12th highest population.
It is against this backdrop that the Trump administration wants to trash the nearly 50-year-old federal waiver given California to establish its own vehicle emission standards.
There are unique geographic, development, weather, and population patterns that exist here that aren’t replicated anywhere else in the United States.
And when it comes to air quality basins nowhere in the United States can match the issues the Central Valley faces. Weathers patterns and mountain peaks soaring up to 14,000 plus feet create a perfect bowl to trap pollutants.
I will be the first to argue that some pollution reduction goals are insane not just because they are difficult to obtain but due to the fact they are environmental perfection as opposed to environmental protection. There’s a huge difference.
The real experts — the guys with the boots on the ground with the San Joaquin Valley Air Quality Control District — have noted that some air quality goals in the valley are unobtainable even if you took every vehicle off the road, stopped all train movements, and silenced every piece of farm and construction equipment.
There are other air quality standards that can be reached while others offer minimal improvements that can’t be justified by the astronomical expense.
That said, reduced tailpipe emissions have made a marked difference in the San Joaquin Valley. There were days in 1991 if you were in Bakersfield you couldn’t see the Sierra mountains that jut abruptly from the foothills just 10 miles away due to the smog. Today there are key measures of pollution that show our air has become roughly 50 percent better over the past 28 years while the valley population has gone up by around 40 percent.
A lot of that has to do with reducing vehicle pollutants via cleaner burning engines as well as more fuel efficient vehicles. By getting more miles per gallon of fuel while at the same time improving internal combustion engine quality is how the valley has been able to grow and make the air markedly better at the same time.
I get why there is a desire to roll back some of the pie-in-the-sky mileage targets. But I also can see why you want to have higher fleet mileage standards than we do if for no other reason to hold the status quo on air quality as the country grows.
And it certainly does look like California is leading the federal government by the nose on this one given that 12 other states are piggybacking on the stricter Golden State standards instead of just abiding by the federal rules. As a result 40 percent of the cars in this country have to meet stricter standard for air quality than the federal government requires. This creates a dilemma of sorts for auto manufacturers who have to produce cars for two separate market requirements — one that covers 13 states and another for the remaining 27 states.
And while the waiver appears to undermine the federal government’s ability to regulate interstate commerce given vehicles are routinely driven across state lines, let’s not forget the ongoing federal threat to yank highway construction money from areas in California that fail to attain federal air quality requirements. Standards that are not only proving problematic to obtain but not working toward even better fleet mileage ultimately will mean the plug may have to be pulled on growth in the valley.
And while growth should not be allowed to pave over the valley, someone needs to remind the federal government that the Congressional Research Service has identified the overall San Joaquin Valley as the “New Appalachia” in terms of economic well-being and other issues. 
Air quality standards and the rules they require are not a one-size-fits-all deal unless you are willing to set the bar universally on what is needed to be obtained based on the worst conditions that exist.
The Central Valley is not the Great Plains where winds blow pollutants away and dissipate their impacts. It’s not even San Francisco where regular ocean breezes blow pollution eastward with studies showing at times in excess of 20 percent of what ails air quality in San Joaquin County originates in the Bay Area. It is why smog check requirements in California went from a dual system where inland counties had tougher rules than Bay Area counties to everyone having to meet the higher standard.
The right answer for California is to keep the waiver in place because based on federal standards for the state what is being required here is far from overkill. The other 12 states likely can’t make the same argument because their geographic, weather, and development patterns are nowhere near what they are in California.