WASHINGTON — The decision hasn't been issued yet, but key Democratic lawmakers are preparing for the Environmental Protection Agency to rule against California's application for a Clean Air Act waiver permitting it to proceed with tough reductions in car and truck emissions.
The decision could come anytime. Despite congressional pressure and a California lawsuit filed in October seeking a quicker decision on the state's 2-year-old application, EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson has said only that the ruling will be made by the end of the year.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said Tuesday that she had "very little hope" that the EPA would grant the waiver, which would open the door to California and more than a dozen other states imposing emissions standards that are more stringent than federal requirements.
The California standard calls for a 30 percent cut in tailpipe emissions by 2016. It's a key part of the state's aggressive effort to reduce global warming.
Asked whether she thought the decision would be made by the EPA or at the White House, Boxer said: "If you look at everything done on the environment, a lot of this leads back to the vice president's office."
"Politics is alive and well in relation to this waiver," said Boxer, the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
In response to Boxer's charges, EPA spokeswoman Jennifer Wood said, "The administrator remains committed to maintaining the integrity of the process, and the senator has already made her position clear in her statements to the media and to the agency."
Under the Clean Air Act, California is entitled to impose stricter air-pollution standards than the federal government as long as it first obtains a waiver. Over the last three decades, 40 such waivers have been issued; none have been denied.
Once granted, the federal law permits other states to follow California's lead. Sixteen states have adopted or soon will adopt emissions laws similar to California's, and they would be entitled to move ahead with them if the latest waiver is adopted. Among the states are Florida, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington. Together they represent 70 percent of the new cars and trucks sold in the United States, according to the automobile industry.
Boxer cited rumors from inside the EPA of deep divisions over whether to grant the waiver. Bettina Poirier, the chief of staff to Boxer's committee, said she'd heard reports of resistance among EPA staffers to completing the necessary legal and technical analyses.
Those reports parallel concerns raised by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., in a letter to Johnson last week.
Waxman, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, asked Johnson to report on whether the administrator had assigned the agency's technical and legal staff "with preparing the appropriate decision documents."
The last-minute hand-wringing comes as Congress completed work this week on an energy bill that raises vehicle gasoline-mileage standards to an average of 35 miles per gallon by 2020, the first time in two decades that the standard has been increased.
While environmentalists hailed the development, Mike Stanton, the president of the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, said in an interview that the increase should convince California to withdraw its waiver application.
"California was fed up with the inaction of Congress," Stanton said. "I think it should now withdraw its request. What we need is a national standard, and we have that now."
But Frank O'Donnell, the head of Clean Air Watch, said better gas mileage wasn't the same as cleaner tailpipe emissions, and that one shouldn't become an excuse for not doing the other.
"There is widespread expectation that the White House will deny this waiver," O'Donnell said. "It's a matter of raw, unadulterated politics at this time."
Charges of political interference have been raised before in the waiver battle.
In September, Waxman issued a report blasting the White House for backing a lobbying campaign against the state's application by the U.S. Department of Transportation after his panel looked into reports that an agency staffer had called congressional offices urging them to oppose the waiver. The calls were placed just as the public comment period on the California application was coming to an end in June.
Boxer said Tuesday that she'd been seeking a meeting this week with Johnson, but that the administrator was "ducking" her.
"Administrator Johnson will absolutely meet with the senator after he makes his decision," EPA spokeswoman Wood said.