California's Latest Exhaust Rules Riling Carmakers

 

The automobile industry is suing to block California's precedent-setting effort to slash tailpipe emissions of heat-trapping gases linked to global warming in a showdown that will shape the kind of cars on the road next decade.

The lawsuit, which has been expected since California in September adopted the nation's first climate-change rules to target car exhaust, will be watched closely by states that already copy California's vehicle regulations and by states that have expressed interest in adopting the greenhouse gas rules.

Seven states Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont automatically are required to adopt the new global warming initiative because they have opted to follow California vehicle emissions standards, which are stricter than those set by the federal government. Including California, these states make up more than one-fourth of the American car market.

Clean air advocates say that lawmakers in at least five more states Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington likely will push to adopt California's vehicle emissions standards next year.

An auto industry trade group and several automobile dealers in California's San Joaquin Valley filed a lawsuit Tuesday (Dec. 7) challenging the state Air Resources Board's (ARB) legal authority to force greenhouse gas reductions on carmakers. The ARB is the state agency tasked with regulating automobile emissions.

The lawsuit argues that California's law, which requires a nearly 30 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide from all passenger vehicles sold in the state by 2016, illegally sets a new vehicle fuel efficiency standard, which only the federal government has the power to do.

"Federal law is designed to ensure a consistent fuel economy program across the country," Fred Webber, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said in announcing the lawsuit. The automaker's group represents nine of the world's largest car companies: BMW Group, DaimlerChrysler AG, Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp., Mitsubishi Motors, Mazda, Porsche, Volkswagen and Toyota Motor Co.

This is not the first time that carmakers have sued California in an attempt to derail regulations forcing them to reduce auto emissions. The auto industry used similar arguments to hold up California's "Zero Emission Vehicles" rule for two years in court. California ended up reaching a compromise with the industry on the rule, which goes into effect in 2005 and requires auto manufacturers to offer more hybrid and low-emission vehicles for sale.

This is California's first attempt to regulate greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide, a by-product of gasoline combustion that is blamed for contributing to global warming.

The easiest known way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions is to build cars and trucks that consume less fuel. California ARB officials concede that the new rules probably will lead to more fuel-efficient vehicles, but they maintain that they are regulating only air pollution, not fuel economy.

New technology to meet the rule eventually would add $1,016 to the price of each new car registered in the state, according to estimates by ARB, which claims costs would be offset by savings on fuel. But auto-industry officials say that new costs will be at least three times higher and have warned that new car sales will be hurt in California and other states that adopt the greenhouse gas rules.

"During the initial wrangling, car companies always claim it's too expensive to mandate cleaner cars, but clearly that's not true," said ARB spokesman Jerry Martin. "After they do it, the cost is not nearly as great as they thought and the technological hurdles are not as big as they thought."

California is the only state allowed to set vehicle emissions standards stricter than federal rules. It was granted special authority over vehicle emissions when the federal Clean Air Act was passed in the 1960s, partly because California already had a regulatory framework for cutting emissions, and partly because it had -- and still has -- the highest concentration of cars and worst pollution in the nation.

When Congress amended the Clean Air Act in 1977, it allowed other states to opt to follow California's stronger standards instead of the federal rules. Only states whose air quality does not meet federal standards are allowed to adopt California rules.

Technically, states that opt for California's standards are required to mirror any changes in vehicle emissions rules adopted by California, such as the greenhouse gas rules, said Ken Colburn, executive director of Northeast States For Coordinated Air Use Management.

The transition is automatic in Massachusetts and Maine, where state law simply says that they follow California's emissions standards. In Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, air regulators are directed by state law to adopt new measures from California. New Jersey's car law, however, will sunset in 2009 unless lawmakers renew it.

Rhode Island is the most recent state to adopt California's car standards, but it is not clear how the state will react if the greenhouse gas rules are implemented.

Vermont is the only state in the Northeast where the air is clean enough to meet federal standards, so therefore did not technically qualify when it adopted California's rules. However, the state has not faced any legal challenges for doing so.

Colburn predicted that Northeastern states will embrace California's greenhouse gas rules out of impatience with the federal government's inaction on regulating heat-trapping gases that many scientists say contribute to global warming.

"Officials in these states are definitely looking at (California's emissions rule) to help achieve some of their goals," Colburn said.

Besides the legal challenge from automakers, California also faces a hurdle in obtaining approval from the federal government to enact the global warming regulations.

Although California is allowed to create its own emissions standards, the state must apply for a waiver to the Clean Air Act from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA is not required to grant the waiver if it finds that a California rule is "unnecessary, arbitrary or capricious."

It's unclear how the EPA will react to the regulations. Under President George W. Bush, the EPA ruled last year that carbon dioxide was not a pollutant and could not be regulated under the Clean Air Act. Ten states, including California, are challenging that ruling in federal court. 

 
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