California led 15 other states and five environmental groups into federal court Wednesday to challenge the Bush administration's refusal to let the state limit vehicle emissions of gases that contribute to global warming.
In a lawsuit filed in San Francisco, the state accused the Environmental Protection Agency of exceeding its authority when it barred California last month from enforcing limits on cars and trucks starting with the 2009 model year, the first law of its kind in the nation. The state needed the EPA's approval to implement clean-air standards that are stricter than federal rules.
"The EPA has done nothing at the national level to curb greenhouse gases, and now it has wrongfully and illegally blocked California's landmark tailpipe emissions standards," state Attorney General Jerry Brown said at a news conference in San Francisco.
He said EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson had offered no coherent legal explanation for his Dec. 19 refusal to let California act and accused President Bush's appointee of merely "doing the bidding of the auto industry."
The lawsuit was endorsed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who said federal regulators were "ignoring the will of millions of people who want their government to take action in the fight against global warming."
The federal veto affected as many as 19 other states that have adopted California's standards or indicated their intention to do so, including the 15 that joined the lawsuit filed Wednesday with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
Other California political leaders chimed in, including Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who chairs a Senate subcommittee on the environment. She cited reports in The Chronicle and other news outlets that Johnson had ignored his legal staff's recommendation to grant California the waiver and asked the EPA's inspector general to investigate the decision.
"The thought has occurred that this was a political decision rather than an environmental decision," Feinstein said.
In response, EPA spokesman Jonathan Shradar cited Johnson's position that a national approach to the problem is better than state-by-state regulation. He noted that Bush had just signed legislation that requires makers of cars and trucks to increase fuel economy to an average of 35 miles per gallon by 2020.
"We now have a more beneficial national approach to a national problem, which establishes an aggressive standard for all 50 states as opposed to a lower standard in California and a patchwork of other states," Shradar said.
California's law, passed in 2002, established limits on auto emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases that scientists consider to be among the major causes of global warming. The law was scheduled to take effect with the 2009 models and would require automakers to reduce their 2016 fleets' emissions by 30 percent.
A federal judge in Fresno upheld the law last month, rejecting automakers' arguments that the law would interfere with exclusive federal regulation of fuel economy and would make new cars dangerous and unaffordable. But the state still needed EPA approval to enforce the law.
The federal Clean Air Act allows California, because of its smog problems, to enact air-quality rules more stringent than the national standard if the state gets a waiver from the EPA. The agency had approved about 50 waiver applications without a denial since the law took effect more than 30 years ago.
The greenhouse gas case was different, because California and the states that followed its lead were implicitly challenging Bush's policy of relying on voluntary industry action, rather than mandatory limits, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
After considering California's request for two years - finally prompting California to file another lawsuit seeking a prompt ruling - Johnson denied a waiver last month. He cited the newly signed federal fuel-economy law and also said the state didn't qualify for a waiver because greenhouse gases are not unique to California.
But the state and environmental groups said the EPA has regularly granted waivers to California to address air pollution problems that were not unique to the state.
In addition, "no other state can claim the same wide range of severe impacts that California faces: melting of the state's snowpack ... increases in catastrophic wildfires, worsening of dangerous smog levels and other harms," said attorney David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the five advocacy organizations that went to court along with California and the other states.
California and its allies also disputed the EPA's assertion that the state law is weaker than the new national fuel-economy standards.
The EPA's Shradar said the federal agency estimates that manufacturers could comply with the California law by achieving an average of 33.8 mpg in their new cars and trucks by 2016.
But Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the state Air Resources Board, said studies by board staffers concluded that the California law would require a fleet average of 44 mpg by 2020 and would reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the state by about twice as much as the federal law.
"Frankly, this is not very surprising because California standards start earlier, go faster ... and the end points are more stringent," Nichols said.
Brown's office had said earlier that federal law required the lawsuit to be brought in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., a more conservative court than the Ninth Circuit. Brown said Wednesday that Johnson's letter rejecting California's waiver did not refer to the controversy as a nationwide issue - which would have sent the suit to Washington - and instead referred only to conditions in California.
Brown said he prefers the Ninth Circuit because its record in environmental cases "has been more closely aligned with how we interpret the law." That may not matter in the long run, he added, because the case could wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Chronicle staff writers Matthew Yi and Zachary Coile contributed to this report. E-mail Bob Egelko at email@example.com.
© 2007 The San Francisco Chronicle