The Brewer administration on Wednesday withdrew from the Western Climate Initiative, ending several years of efforts by states and Canadian provinces to force a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
Henry Darwin, director of the Department of Environmental Quality, said the problem with the initiative is it proposed a "cap and trade" system. That requires major polluters - in the case of Arizona, the coal-fired power plants run by utilities - to reduce carbon dioxide and other emissions or buy credits from other companies which have exceeded their reduction goals.
Arizona's participation was ordered in 2008 by Janet Napolitano, the prior governor. But Darwin said the current administration believes there are "more effective, responsible ways" to improve health and the environment "while avoiding the economic costs to the industries that are subject to cap and trade."
The move comes less than a week after DEQ took the first steps to scrap rules, also dating from Napolitano, which would require that, beginning next year, new cars and trucks sold in Arizona emit less carbon dioxide and be more fuel efficient. In that case, though, Darwin said he had no choice after legislators voted last year to forbid his agency from imposing greenhouse gas emissions that are more stringent than federal laws.
All the actions come as the debate continues over whether greenhouse gases - notably carbon dioxide - are a pollutant and whether their emissions result in climate change. Both sides of that issue claim scientific evidence to support their theories.
But both Darwin and his boss, Jan Brewer, sidestepped that question, saying it is irrelevant to both decisions.
"The governor is not a climatologist and is not in a position to make that determination," said press aide Matthew Benson. He said, though, that Brewer does believe in "pursuing green technology and innovations to both boost the economy and reduce emissions."
Darwin declined to say what he thinks.
"The real issue here is that we can address these issues without having to agree or disagree on global warming," he said.
Darwin said while Arizona is withdrawing from the Western Climate Initiative, with its cap-and-trade system, it is instead joining North America 2050, an organization of states that will explore the issue of greenhouse gas emissions but leave it up to each member to decide what makes sense, both environmentally and economically.
Sierra Club lobbyist Sandy Bahr said the moves are no surprise, saying the governor has made it clear that "environmental protection is not a top priority." Brewer had announced last year she was not interested in any cap-and-trade plan after hearing objections from utility companies that it would raise rates.
"It's pretty clear that what they're attempting to do is nothing, and doing a really good job at that," Bahr said.
Darwin acknowledged that North America 2050 lacks any specific goals, which could mean years of discussion and possibly delay by industries that want no action at all.
"There may be a little bit of that," he said. But Darwin said there is benefit to Arizona being able to work with other states and see what they are trying.
He also said there appears to be less need for states to take the lead - the way they did years ago - because the current administration in Washington is now beginning to deal with the issue. For example, Darwin said the Environmental Protection Agency is developing new standards for greenhouse gas emissions from new sources.
"I believe that it's better for EPA and Congress to be taking action on greenhouse gas rather than a select few states trying to do so," he said. "It really doesn't make much sense because, whether you buy into it (climate change) or not, it's a global issue and we should be dealing with it nationally."
The decision to scrap the "clean cars" standard is slightly different.
Benson said they were implemented at a time when federal vehicle emission standards for greenhouse gases were not as stringent as those in California, the standards Arizona sought to mimic. Now, he said, the Obama administration has tightened those standards, making it unnecessary for Arizona to run its own program.
Bahr noted, though, that DEQ's own study showed that Arizona's regulations would be stricter than federal rules on other pollutants from vehicle emissions that can have health effects. That includes volatile organic compounds and nitrogen compounds, both of which react with sunlight to form ozone.
Now, she said, those benefits are gone.
But Trevor Baggiore, the DEQ director in charge of air quality, said the difference "is just 2 to 3 percent."
Potentially more worrisome, Bahr said, is that the Obama administration has shown it is willing to delay implementation of environmental standards, having done so already for coal-fired power plants. If there is no separate Arizona regulation, she said, any decisions in Washington will mean delays in cleaner air in Arizona.
The rules Brewer has moved to scrap would not ban the sale of specific vehicles but instead require each manufacturer to reduce total greenhouse-gas emissions of all the cars and trucks sold in Arizona.
The eventual goal is 37 percent by 2016. Some vehicles still could pollute more as long as sufficient numbers of cars and trucks that exceed the reduction also are sold.
Benson said that the governor sees this issue, like cap and trade, as one of economics and not related to the debate over climate change.
"The decision that she's made is that the economic costs of being part of the (multi-state) Clean Cars Program outweigh the environmental benefits," he said.