In a major defeat for automakers, a federal judge in Fresno ruled Wednesday that California could set its own standards on greenhouse-gas emissions from vehicles. But the state still needs permission from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to implement the rules.
"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," U.S. District Court Judge Anthony W. Ishii said, citing recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court and a federal court in Vermont. Automakers had argued that only the federal government had such power.
The decision is the second time this year that courts have rebuffed the auto industry's attempts to forestall regulation of tailpipe emissions by states, which have grown impatient with the Bush administration on the issue of global warming.
The Supreme Court has ruled that greenhouse-gas regulation falls to the EPA under clear-air legislation, but the agency has issued no regulations on carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping emissions. Nor has it granted California the right to enact its own rules. California already has the power to regulate pollutants such as particulates from vehicles.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called Wednesday's ruling "another important victory in the fight against global warming," adding, "California and other states will prevail in our goal to take aggressive action on climate change."
California has plans to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 30% from 2009 to 2016, under a plan passed by the California Air Resources Board in 2004.
State Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, though enthusiastic about Wednesday's ruling, expressed concern that the EPA could drag its feet indefinitely in making a decision on the state's waiver request, which has been pending for nearly two years. In November, California sued to force an EPA ruling. "Dragging it out would be a disaster and a gross dereliction in duty," Brown said.
A spokeswoman for the EPA said the Fresno ruling shouldn't affect EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson's pledge to issue a ruling on California's waiver request by the end of the year. EPA lawyers, however, are reviewing the ruling to determine whether "there are any relevant ramifications" for how the agency decides on the matter, the spokeswoman said.
Environmental groups were jubilant in the wake of the decision.
"This is a huge win for clean air and a cooler planet," said Vickie Patton, senior attorney with Environmental Defense, which intervened in the case on behalf of the defendant, the California Air Resources Board.
Roland Hwang, director of clean vehicle programs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which also intervened for the state, said the ruling in effect finished legal debate over the right of states to regulate tailpipe emissions.
"The handwriting is on the wall," he said. "The automakers can send their lawyers home and put their engineers to work on building clean cars."
Automakers have argued that regulating emissions is tantamount to regulating fuel economy, an authority that only the federal government has. According to some estimates, California's more stringent standards would raise the fuel economy of gasoline-fueled cars to an average of 43.5 miles per gallon by 2016, up from 27.5 mpg today. California says that its regulations concern only air quality and that fuel economy is not a factor in its calculations.
The case Ishii ruled on was filed in 2004 by a group of San Joaquin Valley auto dealers and the Washington-based Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group representing 10 large car and light-truck manufacturers, including General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp.
"We can all agree that higher fuel economy is important, but the issue here was about federal fuel economy law," Dave McCurdy, chief executive of the alliance, said Wednesday. "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."
Michael J. Stanton, CEO of the Assn. of International Automobile Manufacturers, which represents other automakers including Honda Motor Co. but was not directly involved in the suit, said the group was "very disappointed." He added that a "state-by-state approach . . . will ultimately limit consumer choice."
Danielle Fugere, attorney for Friends of the Earth, which also intervened in the case, said the ruling was somewhat ironic because automakers filed the suit in the Fresno jurisdiction because of its reputation as a conservative bench. The case was originally assigned to Judge Robert E. Coyle, who in 2002 blocked California from moving ahead with a Zero Emissions Vehicle program. Coyle has since retired, and the case was reassigned to Ishii.
Ishii was unequivocal in ruling against the automakers, saying, "It would be the very definition of folly if EPA were precluded from action simply because the level of decrease in greenhouse-gas output is incompatible with existing mileage standards."
The decision comes as the Senate debates an energy bill passed last week by the House that would raise federal fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks to 35 mpg by 2020, a 40% increase over the current 25-mpg combined standard.
Senate leaders have said they were confident of getting the required votes before Christmas, but on Friday, the White House threatened a veto, contending that the bill, among other things, must "clarify one agency as the sole entity . . . responsible for a single national regulatory standard for both fuel economy and tailpipe greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles."
Separately, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) has said he wants to clarify the language of the bill to "make sure there is no conflict between the role of the EPA" and the role of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, which sets fuel economy standards for the Transportation Department.
Frank O'Donnell of Clean Air Watch, a Washington-based environmental group, said the maneuvers were "a bid to kneecap EPA and states led by California that seek to enforce tougher greenhouse gas standards for motor vehicles. EPA would become subordinate to the Transportation Department. And states like California would be left out in the cold."
California is the only state that can set its own vehicle pollution standards because it began regulating air pollution before the EPA's creation. Under the Clean Air Act, however, other states can select either California's rules or federal ones.
Fifteen other states have adopted California's limits, most recently New Mexico late last month. In sum, those 16 states account for about 40% of the U.S. population.
Times staff writer Martin Zimmerman contributed to this report.
© 2007 The Los Angeles Times