SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The legal battle over global warming moved Monday to the Central Valley, where the auto industry tried to convince a federal judge that California's attempt to limit car emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases is beyond its authority.
Lawyers for car manufacturers, dealers, and trade associations said California's 2002 law, the model for statutes in 11 other states, amounted to a requirement for higher gas mileage, a subject that only the federal government can regulate.
Although federal law allows California to take a lead role in reducing air pollution, Congress never "intended a single state to have such sweeping authority to unilaterally set national fuel economy policy... and profoundly affect a vital national industry," said Raymond Ludwiszewski, lawyer for a trade group of international automakers.
But U.S. District Judge Anthony Ishii suggested that the industry's argument had been undercut by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in April upholding the federal government's authority to limit emissions of greenhouse gases.
Ishii noted that the court — rejecting arguments by the Bush administration as well as the auto industry — found no conflict between the Environmental Protection Agency's duty to regulate air pollutants and federal transportation officials' authority to regulate fuel economy.
"Why would I treat state regulation differently than the EPA adopting regulation of greenhouse gases that affect fuel economy?" Ishii asked. He concluded the two-hour hearing by saying he would rule later.
Even if the judge upholds the law, its fate will remain in the hands of the Bush administration, which must decide whether to allow California to enforce a clean-air standard more stringent than federal regulations. The state filed suit Nov. 8 to demand a decision from the EPA, which has been considering California's request for nearly two years.
The California law requires manufacturers of new vehicles sold in the state to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Manufacturers' 2009 models are the first that must comply with the new restrictions.
The law requires companies gradually to lower their cars' emissions, to 23% below current levels by 2012 and 30% by 2016. It does not specify how the reductions are to be accomplished, but the state Air Resources Board says automakers can reach the goals by a combination of improving gas mileage, implementing new technology and taking steps to prevent leaks of greenhouse gases from cars' air-conditioning systems.
The auto industry sued in 2004 to overturn the law, contending it required a substantial increase in gas mileage, contrary to federal regulation.
"The regulation would mandate more than a 50% improvement in fuel economy over the next eight years," said Andrew Clubok, lawyer for the Association of Automobile Manufacturers and other plaintiffs. "It is undisputed that this regulation would lead to job losses."
Deputy Attorney General Marc Melnick replied that Congress has authorized California to adopt more stringent air-pollution standards — with EPA approval — even if one effect is higher gas mileage.
The same industry arguments were rejected by a federal judge in Vermont in a Sept. 12 ruling that upheld a state law identical to California's.
That ruling is not binding on Ishii. But it was only one of several recent court decisions in favor of an alliance of state governments and environmental groups pushing for curbs on emissions.
Last week, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco overturned the federal government's new gas mileage standards for light trucks and SUVs, ruling that the Bush administration had improperly ignored the effects of fuel consumption on global warming.
The key ruling came in April, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided that greenhouse gases are air pollutants that can be regulated under the Clean Air Act, and that the Environmental Protection Agency must impose restrictions unless it can back a refusal to regulate with scientific evidence.
The court also found that states have a right to go to court to protect their natural resources from the effects of global warming caused by greenhouse gases.
SOURCE: San Francisco Chronicle