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Federal Court Rules California Can Control Vehicle Emissions

Vehicle-emissions ruling hailed as victory for states rights and the environment

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On December 12, 2007, a federal court upheld California’s right to regulate vehicle greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming, and dismissed a lawsuit filed by automakers in 2004 to block a state law that requires vehicles on California roads to produce 30 percent fewer emissions by 2016.

Judge Rules State and Federal Vehicle Laws Can Co-exist
In a 57-page decision [.pdf], U.S. District Court Judge Anthony Ishii rejected the auto industry’s claims that federal law prevented California from enforcing its own motor vehicle greenhouse gas regulations.

Judge Ishii ruled that the state regulations did not conflict with either federal fuel-economy laws or with the president's power to conduct foreign policy. Emphasizing that the Clean Air Act expressly authorizes California to regulate emissions that affect human health and the environment, Judge Ishii found that Congress did not intend for the state’s authority to be curtailed by federal fuel-economy laws.

Court Defends State’s Right to Safeguard Public Welfare
In handing down his decision, Judge Ishii said: "The required increase in fuel economy is incidental to the state law's purpose of assuring protection of public health and welfare under the Clean Air Act." After hearing the case, the judge concluded that compliance with the California law "can be at least partially achieved through changes that are not directly reflected in fuel-economy improvements measured in miles-per-gallon.”

Judge Ishii pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court addressed a similar issue in its April 2007 ruling that rejected the EPA's argument that regulating vehicle greenhouse gases would require the agency to increase fuel economy, which the agency claimed was the job of federal transportation officials and outside its purview.

Noting the growing body of scientific evidence that points to global warming as an increasingly severe and urgent issue, Judge Ishii said that preventing an environmental agency from reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions because those measures might also improve vehicle gas mileage would be “the very height of folly.”

Ruling May Enable States to Create De Facto US Emissions Standard
The ruling by Judge Ishii is not only a victory for California, but also for 16 other states that modeled their laws or regulations on the 2002 California statute. The 17 states are home to nearly half the U.S. population, and the combined effect of their laws would require automakers to cut vehicle greenhouse gas emissions nationwide, despite the Bush administration’s refusal to adopt mandatory national standards.

California Still Needs EPA Waiver to Enforce Greenhouse Gas Limits
Before the California law can be enforced, however, the state must have the approval of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. California has been waiting two years for the EPA to issue a waiver that would allow the state to exceed federal clean-air regulations and to limit vehicle greenhouse gas emissions beginning with 2009 models.

While the EPA has never denied California’s request for the necessary waiver, the agency has been lobbied hard by automakers and members of the Bush administration, including the U.S. transportation secretary, to reject the state’s request. To force a decision, California sued the agency, and EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson has promised to announce his decision by the end of 2007, which is only about two weeks away.

The federal court ruling is expected to make it more difficult for the EPA and the Bush administration to deny or continue to delay the waiver.

According to California Attorney General Jerry Brown, whose office defended the law in court, Judge Ishii’s ruling "leaves the Bush administration as the last remaining roadblock to California's regulation of tailpipe greenhouse gas emissions."

Environmentalists Urge EPA and Automakers to Help Curb Global Warming
Environmentalists hailed Judge Ishii’s ruling as a landmark decision in the struggle to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and curb global warming, and an opportunity for automakers to become part of the solution. The general reaction was summed up well in a statement issued by David Bookbinder, chief climate counsel for the Sierra Club:

“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.

“Just as we said earlier this year when we celebrated a similar victory in a Vermont court, instead of the automakers thinking of excuses, it’s time for them to put their immense know-how toward solving some of our most pressing problems. This ruling should compel the U.S. automakers to make the kind of clean, efficient cars Americans want--the kind that foreign automakers have used to surge to record profits as the U.S. auto industry buckled under the weight of its gas guzzlers. This ruling is good for the environment, good for America, and, ultimately, good for the automakers.

"It’s now time for the Bush Administration’s EPA to get out of the way and grant California the waiver it and other states need in order to move forward with these landmark protections.”

Read the full text [.pdf] of the U.S. District Court ruling.

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