Fed. Court Rules Calif. Can Set Own Emissions

December 12, 2007
Governor Schwarzenegger

Governor Schwarzenegger

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers is contemplating an appeal of a federal court decision that gives state regulators, particularly in California, more influence over fuel economy standards.A U.S. District Judge in Fresno, Calif., has ruled the state of California has the right to set its own standards on greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles. The state does, however, need permission from the Environmental Protection Agency to implement any new regulations, according to the ruling by Judge Anthony W. Ishii.

Ishii, however, rejected automakers' contention that only the EPA can limit emissions of the so-called greenhouse gases.

"Both EPA and California...are equally empowered through the Clean Air Act to promulgate regulations that limit the emissions of greenhouse gases, principally carbon dioxide, from motor vehicles," Ishii said, citing recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court and a federal court in Vermont. Since April, four different federal courts have ruled against the alliance of automakers on fuel-economy related issues.

Dave McCurdy, AAM president, said the alliance wasn't giving up its four-year old legal fight in California. "The Alliance will continue studying the decision and considering the options, including an appeal," he said.

"We can all agree that higher fuel economy is important, but the issue here was about federal fuel economy law. Under federal law, only the federal government can set fuel economy standards for all 50 states. We need a consistent national policy for fuel economy, and this nationwide policy cannot be written by a single state or group of states — only by the federal government," he said.

"In fact, the federal government has taken action, raising fuel economy standards for seven straight years. Just in the last week, Congressional leaders have agreed on a new national fuel economy standard that will aggressively raise fuel economy standards for the next twelve years," he said.

However, the bill raising federal fuel economy standards to 35 miles per gallon by 2020 is now on hold in the U.S. Senate where Republicans have threatened to kill it with a filibuster. President George W. Bush also has threatened to veto the bill.

A presidential veto, however, could wind up giving the state governments, particularly California, a large voice in setting fuel economy law over the next decade. The California legislature in 2002 mandated reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent between 2009 and 2016.

The automakers have argued the reduction in greenhouse gases amounts to back-door imposition of fuel-economy standards and only the federal government has the right to set fuel economy standards.

Four different federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have now handed down rulings, saying state government can impose or demand from the federal Environmental Protection Agency more stringent regulations of tailpipe emissions, including carbon dioxide. In April, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA has the right to regulate greenhouse gases as an air pollutant and give states permission to implement their own standards.

In September, a federal court in Vermont ruled similarly to the Fresno court on the question of federal preemption of state standards and in November, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against a loophole allowing lower emission standards for light trucks.

California Attorney General Jerry Brown said the Fresno ruling indicates the auto industry's legal strategy has failed. "It's a repudiation of the automobile companies' strategy. This is a major victory for California in its role as an innovator in tailpipe emissions," he said.

"California and other states will prevail in our goal to take aggressive action on climate change. With motor vehicles contributing to roughly 40 percent of the state's greenhouse gas emissions, it is imperative that we be granted the fuel waiver from the federal government," California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said in a statement, praising the Fresno ruling.

Environmental groups also hailed the ruling.

"This is a huge win for clean air and a cooler planet," said Vickie Patton, senior attorney with Environmental Defense.

"Judge Ishii's opinion leaves no doubt that the EPA must act now to pave the way for the innovative clean-car programs being advanced by California and 16 other states across the nation," added David Bookbinder, Sierra Club Chief Climate Counsel. "Once again, a judge has found the auto industry’s desperate attempts to stay mired in outdated, dirty technology completely without merit. Today’s decision is just one more reason why EPA should stop dragging its feet and grant the waiver California needs to move forward with this vital tool to combat global warming," Bookbinder said.

-- Joseph Szczesny

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