It has become a virtual certainty that when the Environmental Protection Agency makes a pronouncement, it will belie EPA's name and whole purpose in life: to protect the environment.
So, few expected anything more this week than its rudimentary "No!" when EPA refused to grant California and 16 other states the right to set higher, tougher carbon-dioxide emission standards for automobiles.
As if he had slept through decades of California news about the state's toxic air, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson ruled the states had not made their case for higher standards. What he should have said was that Detroit automakers made a stronger case for the Bush administration to continue to take it easy on polluters.
California's request for a waiver on federal standards isn't unique. EPA has granted at least 50 to California to toughen environmental rules.
But like most states that have tired of waiting for any meaningful federal action on greenhouse gases, California and the 16 others saw that delays were taking a toll on air quality.
What the states sought was a 30 percent reduction of emissions from cars and light trucks by 2016, with some measurable start by 2009. Ultimately, that would translate into 43 miles per gallon for cars and 27 miles per gallon for SUVs and heavier trucks. The Bush plan sets 35 miles per gallon for all vehicles by 2020.
President Bush and conservatives around him once believed in transferring more power to the states and out of Washington. Not so, however, when political cronies in Detroit begin to whine.
The good news is that California's Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the other state chief executives have promised they will sue the EPA for the right to tighten air quality rules.
If they win, it would be a landmark in environmental protection. Auto sales in those 17 states account for at least half of all vehicles sold in the United States. Detroit, therefore, would be required to gear up and produce all vehicles to the tougher standards, which scientists and engineers say is technologically feasible, notwithstanding claims of automakers that they lack the expertise for such rapid improvement.
U.S. industry has faced far more demanding challenges, especially in wartime. However, industry today is managed by men schooled in finance, not engineering, and who abhor the costs of investing in innovative, socially responsible technological advances that benefit humankind.
Just as Detroit was dragged kicking and screaming into most automotive safety innovations, tougher emission standards sooner than later are inevitable. It should be sooner, not later.