The California Air Resources Board voted last week to delay implementing tough new rules on emissions from diesel trucks and buses.
It was the right move, though it should have come sooner, and the air board suffered a loss of credibility because Chairwoman Mary Nichols did not inform the board about an agency statistician who lied about his credentials in preparing a health study on diesel emissions.
A peer review panel since has reviewed the statistician's work and found it to be sound. But Nichols should have known better than to withhold that information from her fellow board members.
The air board's reputation and its ability to protect health rest on strong science and analyses that reflect economic reality. Obviously, the economic reality has changed since the diesel regulations were adopted a year ago. With fewer trucks on the road, air board scientists reported that diesel emissions are 20 percent lower this year than they previously had predicted.
Because of the recession, trucking firms are not in a position to pay for the regulations, which are projected to cost $4.5 billion over the next two decades. Big and small firms have had to reduce rates, lay off drivers and idle their trucks.
On top of that, a credit crunch has made it difficult if not impossible for them to obtain the financing to pay for the soot traps and cleaner-burning engines.
Last week after hearing from 80 witnesses, most of them distressed truckers, the board wisely agreed to modify its regulations. Members directed staff to come back in April with options that could slow the phase-in of the rules in the early years — especially for small companies. The options might include expanding exemptions and providing additional incentives for truckers to install filters.
The board did not walk away from its rules altogether, as some trucking industry officials had requested. Diesel fumes and dirty air take a toll on public health and the state's economy, and the board rightly recognizes that threat. Furthermore, in 2014, California faces a federal deadline to meet clean air standards. Without reductions in emissions from diesel trucks and buses, the state will not be able to meet that deadline and could face sanctions, including denial of federal transportation funds.