Emissions Ruling Puts States in Driver’s Seat

Environmental advocates won a major victory Wednesday when Vermont U.S. District Judge William K. Sessions ruled that states including Vermont and California can regulate greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles.

In his 240-page ruling, Sessions rejected auto manufacturers’ and dealers’ claims that federal law preempts state rules and that the technology is not yet available to make compliance possible.

“History suggests that the ingenuity of the industry, once put in gear, responds admirably to most technological challenges,” Sessions wrote in his decision concluding the 16-day trial.

“In light of the public statements of industry representatives, history of compliance with previous technological challenges, and the state of the record, the Court remains unconvinced automakers cannot meet the challenges of Vermont and California’s greenhouse gas regulations,” he added.

‘A Huge Step Forward’

Sessions’ decision follows an April ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that the Environmental Protection Agency is, in fact, responsible for regulating carbon dioxide as an atmospheric pollutant, and that failing to do so is a violation of the Clean Air Act.

“I think this is a huge step forward for those who are concerned about a healthy environment generally and global warming in particular,” Vermont Attorney General William H. Sorrell told TechNewsWorld.

“At least under the current administration, where the Bush EPA has not really been a leader in this arena, it’s left to the states to go forward if we can,” Sorrell explained. “Now the judge has said legally we can do it, and the facts support that while the standards may be difficult for the industry, the technology is there. Although they might not want to, the auto makers can meet these standards.”

Pending EPA Waiver

Vermont’s emissions regulations, which are based on standards developed in 2002 in California, require that auto makers achieve a 30 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions for cars and trucks by 2016. Connecticut, Florida, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Washington are among the other states that have followed California’s lead.

Historically, California had been the only state with authority to set standards different from those set by the EPA because of its particularly urgent smog problems. The EPA still must grant a waiver applied for by California under the Clean Air Act in order for the rules to take effect. If denied, the Vermont rules would be invalid, Sessions noted.

Meanwhile, trials similar to the one that just concluded in Vermont are coming up in California and Rhode Island, Sorrell said. With the new Vermont precedent, “I’d certainly rather be arguing our side of the case than arguing against it,” he added.

Appeal Possible

Auto companies, not surprisingly, were not pleased by the decision.

“Federal law is designed to ensure a consistent fuel economy program across the country,” said Dave McCurdy, president and CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. “It makes sense that only the federal government can regulate fuel economy. Automakers support improving fuel economy standards nationally, rather than piecemeal and will continue to work with the Congress, NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) and EPA to reduce our oil dependence while increasing fuel economy.”

The alliance is considering appealing Sessions’ ruling, McCurdy added. DaimlerChrysler and General Motors were also among the plaintiffs in the case.

Presidential Goals

Those in Washington were also watching carefully.

“The relevant agencies are reviewing this decision,” Kristen Hellmer, a spokesperson for the executive office of the president’s Council on Environmental Quality, told TechNewsWorld.

“In May, President Bush directed the EPA, the Department of Transportation, Energy and Agriculture to take the first steps toward regulations that would cut gasoline consumption and greenhouse gas emissions from cars, using his ‘twenty in ten’ program as a starting point,” Hellmer added. “In his State of the Union address, the president called on Congress to pass legislation that would replace 20 percent of the nation’s gasoline usage in 10 years by increased fuel economy standards and a 35 billion gallon alternative fuel mandate.”

Environmental organizations nationwide applauded Sessions’ decision.

‘A Turning Point’

“This stunning ruling will be seen as a turning point in the fight to protect Americans from the worst consequences of global warming,” said Michelle Robinson, director of the clean vehicles program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). “Judge Sessions affirmed what we at the Union of Concerned Scientists have been saying for years: Automakers have the technology today to meet this global warming pollution standard in a cost-effective way.

“Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency now has no excuse to stand in the way of state implementation,” Robinson added. “If the agency granted the necessary waiver, the states that have adopted the standard would be able to cut as a much as 100 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2020.”

Earlier this year, UCS unveiled a vehicle design, dubbed the “Vanguard,” which would exceed the state standard by cutting global warming pollution by more than 40 percent using conventional, off-the-shelf technology.

Keeping the Pressure On

“This ruling takes away the last excuse for delay — it’s time for the EPA to clear the way for cleaner cars,” said Jim Tripp, general counsel for Environmental Defense, who helped argue the Vermont case. “The U.S. auto industry should stop litigating and start innovating.”

Environmental Defense has filed a notice of intent to sue the EPA if it does not rule on the California waiver request by November 2007, and the EPA’s administrator has indicated that a ruling will indeed be made by the end of the year, Tripp told TechNewsWorld.

“We’re trying to keep the pressure on,” Tripp explained.

Meanwhile, Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) has introduced legislation in Congress to require the EPA to grant the waiver.

As the California trial moves forward, “I think this decision, which is well-reasoned and well-researched, will have an impact,” Tripp concluded. “Cleaner cars are the ultimate win-win-win: good for our economy, our environment and our overall health and well-being.”

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