This November, along with a host of anxious politicians, California’s own greenhouse gas law, AB 32, will be on the ballot. Those worried about the law’s potential economic consequences are pushing Proposition 23 that calls for freezing provisions of AB 32 until California’s unemployment rate drops to 5.5% or below for four consecutive quarters. Serious questions about apocalyptic global warming aside, one would expect California’s horrendous unemployment rate of 12.3% and the state’s near bankrupt status, to deter the golden – or rather green – state’s aggressive emissions regulatory agenda but such is not the case.

Last Tuesday, the California Air Resource Board (CARB) released a report outlining preliminary emissions reduction targets for four major metropolitan areas – San Diego, Los Angeles, the Bay Area, and the Sacramento region. The report calls for a 13-16% reduction of carbon dioxide by 2035. What is surreal even by California’s standards is that, at the same time CARB is preparing to ratchet down on greenhouse gas emissions, the agency is pushing California dry cleaners to adopt machines that actually emit greenhouse gases.

Most dry cleaners use a compound known as perc, but perc has found itself in CARB’s regulatory cross-hairs. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has designated perc as a “potential occupational carcinogen” and, similarly, the National Toxicology Program has designated perc as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” Consequently, it is not a surprise that perc is on CARB’s list.  Even so, OSHA (The Occupational Safety and Health Administration) – an entity that rarely finds a risk too small to regulate ­– states that, “The possibility of these health hazards can be minimized by reducing worker exposures to perc vapor and by avoiding skin contact with perc.” Nonetheless, CARB is compelling dry cleaners to jettison machines that use the cleaning solvent.

Since 2005, California dry cleaners using perc machines have had to pay a tax of $4 per gallon of perc. The collected tax has provided funding for CARB’s Non-Toxic Dry Cleaning Incentive Program. Under the program, CARB provides dry cleaners with $10,000 grants that subsidize their transition from perc machines to other cleaning technologies such as — have you guessed it — carbon dioxide.

Any dry cleaner that chooses to adopt the CO2 machines may need every penny of CARB’s subsidies as the San Francisco Examiner reports that a CO2 machine can cost as much as $143,000 and almost $50,000 more to install. In addition to this hefty price tag and additional quarterly fines that can be as high as $2,500 for continued use of perc, dry cleaners are also likely on the hook for thousands more to remove and dispose of their old perc machines and any traces thereof from their shops. According to Marti Russell, the past president of the California Dry Cleaners Association, air quality officials have opined that as many as 15 to 20 percent of dry cleaners in the Bay area could close their doors. With dry cleaning revenue already down by 25-30 percent by some estimates, the prediction may not be far off.

The switch may cause dry cleaners’ customers problems as well. According to CARB’s own estimates, dry cleaning businesses will have to charge 41 to 51 cents more per garment to pay the cost of a new dry cleaning machine within five years. Even with such an investment, according to one of CARB’s own reports, CO2 cleaning technology may be less effective than perc at cleaning many stains. CARB used a measurement unit known as the Kauri Butanol (Kb) to rank the degreasing ability of various solvents. A higher number indicates a cleaning solvent more efficient at removing hydrocarbon (petroleum-based) stains like grease or lipstick. Out of eight cleaning technologies, perc scored the highest at 92, while carbon dioxide was the lowest at <10. While advocates of CO2 based dry cleaning and other alternative technologies are working to refine and improve their methods and point at other studies, the reality is that dry cleaners have, at least in part, relied on perc because it works.

Where it gets really weird is in CARB’s description of the carbon dioxide used for dry cleaning. CARB states it is “a non-toxic, naturally-occurring gas,” that poses no risks to human health (excepting of course the end of mankind from global warming) and goes on to explain that CO2 is as harmless as the beverage-grade chemical used to carbonate a can of soda pop and is used in packaging for many foods such as salads, potato chips, and cookies. While this is all quite true, it seems like something that would come from an ostracized “global warming denier.” (Are the people pushing these “alternative” dry cleaning technologies the same ones that are telling us “alternative” energy – solar and wind – will do just fine?)

Attempting to explain itself, CARB states that it has not determined how much carbon dioxide is emitted from CO2 cleaning, and that the CO2 dry cleaning process does not contribute to “the greenhouse gas inventory” because “the carbon dioxide used… is a by-product from industrial operations.” This maybe so but it does not change the fact that an agency preparing to strangle some businesses and citizens with CO2 restrictions is busy subsidizing CO2 emissions by its other regulatory victims. Hard to believe the state of California is broke.

Co-authored by Shannon Hale. Hale was a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: