ARB’s fuel-nozzle regulation gets under way as scheduled

A new rule that requires thousands of California gas stations to modify their pump nozzles so that less fuel vapor escapes into the atmosphere went into effect this week, despite requests from Gov. Schwarzenegger to postpone the controversial regulation.

The governor asked the Legislature to approve a “one-year enforcement holiday” for the stations, and Republicans announced Wednesday that they were introducing emergency legislation to give gas stations relief from the new regulation.  The Republicans said the new rule “could force many gas stations to shut down or face significant fines if they haven’t installed new fuel nozzles to capture more fuel vapor.”

The bill by Assemblyman Martin Garrick, R-Carlsbad, calls for the one-year enforcement holiday urged by the governor. Just over a third of impacted gas stations across California have installed the new fuel nozzles.

The new rule requires the nozzles to block 98 percent of fuel vapor, up from the current regulation of 95 percent.

Schwarzenegger had asked Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols to postpone the regulation by six months or a year because “significantly more time is needed before it can be successfully enforced without significant negative effects on our state‘s economy.”

At the same time, Schwarzenegger asked legislative leaders to approve urgency legislation by the end of the month to help provide financial assistance for gas station owners and to authorize a “one-year enforcement holiday” in which “station owners shall not be shut down or fined if they have not installed these systems, so long as they have shown a good-faith effort to comply.”

The legislation would supersede any action taken by the air board, although it could not take effect immediately because the regulation reflecting the new law would have to be drafted and approved.

A group representing California’s air pollution control officers said local districts would give the station owners leeway in applying the new regulation.

“Stations will not be tagged out of service if they show diligence in their efforts to achieve compliance,” the California Air Pollution Control Officers said in a letter released by the ARB. “The tag-out enforcement option will only be applied to recalcitrant operators who refuse to make efforts to comply; and we expect such circumstances to be extremely rare.”

It’s rare for the governor to intercede in the ARB’s clean-air regulations, particularly at the 11th hour after they have been approved and are poised to take effect. Generally, the governor has been reluctant to slow down environmental regulators in the past, despite business leaders’ protests.

The governor said he was not criticizing the board’s earlier decision to approve the stricter vapor recovery rule, “but I am writing to suggest that enforcement flexibility is an absolute necessity to ensure against the job and financial losses that could come from stations being shut down or fined for noncompliance.”

Last year, amid the state’s mounting budget crisis, Schwarzenegger refused to ask the board to delay the state Air Resources Board’s plan to implement new greenhouse gas emissions rules and diesel regulations that would impact state truckers.

In 2007, however, a former chairman of the ARB complained that the governor meddled with the ARB, suggesting that the governor favored political or business interests over envirnonmental quality.

Robert Sawyer, Nichols’ predecessor, told Schwarzenegger in a letter that “your staff interjected itself in a manner that has compromised the independence and integrity of the board.” Sawyer offered similar comments to an Assembly hearing.
The ARB was reviewing Schwarzenegger’s request, board spokesman Stanley Young said on Monday.

Schwarzenegger, in his letter to Nichols, said “current economic conditions require extreme caution in implementing new regulations that call for this type of investment by small business owners right now.”

A coalition representing station owners, the state Chamber of Commerce and other business interests, said the new regulation could effect 7,000 to 8,000 gasoline stations.

The group complained that although the ARB approved vapor-recovery rules in 2000, the board did not authorize specific equipment until 2007 and 2008, leaving stations facing a short deadline.

“The reality is they can’t go out and buy something until CARB tells them what they can buy. They (the stations) were left high and dry for seven years,” said Tom Kise, a spokesman for the coalition.

The ARB, the state’s top air-quality enforcer, approved the regulation as one of a number of clean-air rules seeking to curb fuel vapor emissions.

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