March 6, 2009 at 7:22 am

California might drop its attempt to get an emissions exception

Top air regulator says state close to agreeing to the national carbon standard car firms seek.

Levin )

WASHINGTON -- California's top air regulator said Thursday her state could agree to the nationwide carbon-emissions standards that the auto industry seeks.

But the details of such a plan, which could supersede the attempt by California and 13 other states to impose their own rules, are likely to bring their own contentious debate, even as years of fighting over California's rules begins to ebb.

"I think we may be very close to being on the same page," said Mary Nichols, the chairwoman of the powerful California Air Resources Board. She and dozens of industry experts, environmental activists and private citizens testified during an Environmental Protection Agency hearing on California's request to set its own rules for tailpipe emissions.

The Bush administration denied the request a year ago, but within days of taking office, President Barack Obama ordered a review of that decision. The administration has sent strong signals in recent days that it plans to set nationwide greenhouse gas limits.

Among those speaking Thursday: Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit, making a rare appearance by a sitting senator before a regulatory panel. Levin echoed the auto industry's case against a waiver for California, and calling for a nationwide standard built on the model of fuel efficiency increases Congress passed in 2007.

That legislation made it easier for domestic carmakers, whose sales are skewed toward pickups and SUVs, to meet increasing mileage standards. Levin said Thursday that if the nationwide standards the Obama administration is considering follow that same structure, he could support them.

But Nichols raised questions about that approach. She said the 2007 law may have gone "too far in terms of trying to protect larger, heavier vehicles."

Levin and representatives from auto dealers and manufacturers argued against the California request, saying it would establish an unworkably complex web of state-by-state regulations. But Nichols said approval of the waiver is the best way to pressure federal officials to set aggressive national standards.

"It ratchets the whole debate up in the direction that it needs to go," she said.