On Aug. 30, 1967, a diverse group of California leaders came together to unify statewide efforts to address severe air pollution. Governor Ronald Reagan approved the Mulford-Carrell Air Resources Act to create the State Air Resources Board, committing California to a unified, statewide approach to aggressively address the serious issue of air pollution in the state.
The California Air Resources Board (CARB) was a merger of the Bureau of Air Sanitation and the California Motor Vehicle Pollution Control Board. That same year, the Federal Air Quality Act of 1967 was enacted, giving California the ability to set its own more stringent air quality rules due to California's unique geography, weather and expanding number of people and vehicles.
In fact, the history of California’s pioneering efforts to reduce air pollutants dates back even further. The first recognized episodes of ‘smog’ occurred in Los Angeles in the summer of 1943. Visibility was only three blocks. People suffered from smarting eyes, burning lungs and nausea. The phenomenon was termed a "gas attack" and blamed on a nearby butadiene plant.
But when the plant was shut down, the smog did not abate. In 1947, the Los Angeles County Air Pollution Control District -- the first such body in the nation -- was formed. The district regulated obvious culprits, like smoke-belching power plants and oil refineries, but still the smog persisted.
It was not until the early 1950s that it became clear the automobile was the main culprit. That’s when Dr. Arie Haagen-Smit discovered the nature and causes of photochemical smog. He made the discovery while on a one-year leave of absence from Caltech, where he was a bioorganic chemistry professor. Working in a specially-equipped Los Angeles air district laboratory, he determined that two chief constituents of automobile exhaust -- airborne hydrocarbons from gasoline, and oxides of nitrogen (NOx) produced by internal combustion engines -- were to blame for smog. His research, highlighting the reaction of sunlight with automobile exhaust and industrial air pollution, became the foundation upon which today’s air pollution regulations are based.
California began to take action statewide, forming a Bureau of Air Sanitation within the California Department of Public Health, and requiring that department to establish air quality standards and set necessary controls on motor vehicle emissions of air pollutants. In 1966 California established the first tailpipe emissions standards in the nation.
A year later the California Air Resources Board was established. Just three years later the federal Clean Air Act, expanding on the 1967 Air Quality Act, recognized California’s earlier efforts, and authorized the state to set its own separate and stricter-than-federal vehicle emissions regulations to address the extraordinary circumstances of population, climate and topography that generated the worst air in the nation.
Under that authority, only four years later CARB adopted the nation’s first NOx emissions standards for motor vehicles, and led the way to the development of the catalytic converter that would revolutionize the ability to reduce smog-forming emissions from cars.
That was just the beginning. Under the provisions of the Clean Air Act, CARB has adopted, implemented and enforced a wide array of nation-leading air pollution controls, based on a strong foundation of science over the next five decades. This regulatory history reflects a longstanding partnership between state and federal air quality regulators during both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations. This partnership has allowed California to develop and implement air pollution control strategies that have proven to be a model for other states, the nation and other countries.
Since its formation, CARB has worked with the public, the business sector and local governments in its effort to find solutions to California’s air quality problems. Some of the innovative vehicle emission control strategies that have led to cleaner air in California include:
- The nation’s first tailpipe emissions standards for hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide (1966), oxides of nitrogen (1971), and particulate matter from diesel-fueled vehicles (1982);
- Catalytic converters, beginning in the 1970s;
- On-board diagnostic, or “check engine” light, systems, beginning with 1988 model-year cars;
- A Zero-Emission Vehicle (ZEV) regulation (1990) that requires manufacturers to produce an increasing number of ZEVs;
- The nation’s first greenhouse gas emissions standards for cars (mandated by the Legislature in 2002 and approved by CARB in 2004); and
- California’s Advanced Clean Cars Program (2012), which reduces both conventional “criteria” and greenhouse gas pollutant emissions from automobiles.
In the 1980s and ‘90s, California cars became the cleanest in the world, and California’s fuel became the cleanest, too. CARB, which had already eliminated lead in gasoline, adopted standards for cleaner-burning gasoline, as well as initial standards for cleaner diesel fuel for trucks and buses. CARB also began work to reduce smog-forming emissions from thousands of common household products.
In the 2000s, CARB became responsible for monitoring and reducing greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. Assembly Bill 32, also known as the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, was signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, giving CARB this new role. AB 32 established a first-in-the-world comprehensive program of regulatory and market mechanisms to achieve real, quantifiable, cost-effective reductions in greenhouse gases.
In the current decade, California solidified its position as a world leader on climate change, entering into climate agreements with several nations and linking cap-and-trade programs with Quebec. Its broad range of programs to reduce greenhouse gases addresses every major sector of the economy including a Zero Emission Vehicle mandate that will clean up the transportation sector and put close to 1.5 million plug-in or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on the roads by 2025. Thanks to the cap-and-trade program, which reduces carbon emissions from electricity generation and large-scale industries, billions of dollars have been invested to reduce greenhouse gases in cities and towns throughout California, with an emphasis on disadvantaged communities.
Aggressive air pollution control programs in California have led to continued improvements in air quality, even as the population and number of cars has increased. But while the situation has been steadily improving, the state still lags behind the rest of the nation. California’s ever-growing population, reliance on car travel, and sunshine continue to exacerbate its smog problem. Much more must be done to see that all of California’s residents breathe clean air, and that we meet our targets to stabilize climate change and prevent the most severe impacts from happening.
There is much to do in the next 50 years, and CARB is ready for the challenge.