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Ruling may drive tighter fuel standards

Times Staff Writer

The Bush administration must write tougher fuel economy regulations for sport utility vehicles, minivans and pickup trucks that take into account greenhouse gas pollution, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.

The decision by judges of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals targeted a loophole that lets the top-selling vehicles, including Chevrolet Tahoe and Ford Expedition, get fewer miles per gallon of fuel than passenger cars.

It was the third ruling this year by a federal court to bolster contentions from state governments and environmental groups that the president and federal regulators haven’t been doing enough to battle climate change.

The lawsuit was brought by California, 10 other states and the cities of New York and Washington against the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the agency charged with setting vehicle mileage requirements.

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The complaint challenged as “trivial” an increase in mileage for so-called light trucks, announced in March 2006, to 23.5 miles per gallon by 2010. Automakers currently are required to achieve average fuel economy of 22.2 mpg for the popular vehicles, which account for 53% of new auto sales in the U.S. Passenger cars are required to get about five more miles per gallon than SUVs and light trucks.

“This is a stunning rebuke to the Bush administration and its failed energy policy and hopefully will send a message that we need to continue now to take strong action against dangerous foreign oil dependence and against global warming,” California Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown said.

The decision, if it stands, also “will mean savings for every car driver in America” because they’ll be able to drive farther on a gallon of gasoline, Brown said.

He predicted that the decisions this year by the U.S. Supreme Court, a U.S. District Court judge in Vermont and the Court of Appeals in San Francisco would send a signal to Congress to set stricter mileage standards on all U.S. passenger cars and light trucks.

In June, the Senate approved a bill to raise average mileage for all vehicles to 35 mpg by 2020. The measure is before the House of Representatives.

Automakers, in a statement responding to the appeals court ruling, said they “support aggressive fuel economy increases” between now and 2022. But the president of the Alliance of American Automobile Manufacturers, Dave McCurdy, urged federal officials not to change current fuel economy standards for SUVs, minivans and light trucks that would be built during the 2008-11 model years.

“Any further changes to the program would only delay the progress that manufacturers have made toward increasing fleet-wide fuel economy,” McCurdy said.

A spokesman for the Bush administration, Charles Miller of the Department of Justice, declined to comment on the decision, other than to say that his agency was reviewing the decision and discussing options.

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If no appeal is forthcoming, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would be forced to scrap the current fuel economy standards for light trucks and write new rules that provide the “maximum feasible” fuel savings, the appeals court said. The agency also would be required to consider first-ever fuel economy requirements on heavy pickup trucks, weighing 8,500 to 10,000 pounds.

In their ruling, the appeals court judges noted that federal regulators didn’t present a convincing case for putting SUVs and other light trucks in a different category from passenger cars when setting fuel economy standards.

“NHTSA’s decision runs counter to the evidence showing that SUVs, vans and pickup trucks are manufactured primarily for the purpose of transporting passengers and are generally not used for off-highway operation,” they said.

The ruling by the appeals court justices in San Francisco is philosophically in line with a landmark January decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming can be regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Air Act.

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A district court judge in Burlington, Vt., built upon that decision in April when he ruled that the Clean Air Act allows California to set car tailpipe emission regulations that exceed federal rules to combat climate change. Other states, such as Vermont, are free to copy California’s stricter laws, the judge said.

A lawsuit brought by automakers against the state of California over its car emission rules is set for a hearing Monday in U.S. District Court in Fresno.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has sued the Bush administration, demanding that a judge force the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to rule on a request from California to set its own limits on greenhouse gas emissions.

Schwarzenegger, who was in Los Angeles to tout alternative fuel vehicles at the Los Angeles Auto Show, called the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision a win for both environmentalists and consumers.

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“Clearly, automobile companies have the capability to produce environmentally friendly cars and today’s court ruling underscores the need for the federal government to step in and provide the extra push necessary to make these vehicles widespread,” the governor said.

The intense legal scrimmaging and series of rulings favoring environmentalists underscores that even generally conservative judges are concluding that “global warming can’t be ignored,” said David Doniger, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is involved in a number of the lawsuits.

Though it’s early to cite a definitive trend, it’s clear that “we’re beginning to see more solicitude in the courts for arguments on the environment,” said Carl Tobias, a federal court scholar at the University of Richmond School of Law. The courts are beginning to consistently find fault with the way the business-friendly Bush administration is enforcing environmental laws, he said.

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marc.lifsher@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Fuel rules

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What: The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the Bush administration’s corporate average fuel economy standards, announced in March 2006, requiring automakers to raise the average fuel economy of passenger sport utility vehicles, minivans and pickup trucks to 23.5 miles per gallon by 2010 from 22.2 mpg. Passenger cars must average 27.5 mpg.

Why: The court said that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration set standards that were “arbitrary and capricious” because it had failed to account for the effect of greenhouse gas pollution on the environment and the economy. The criteria for model years 2008-11 also unfairly held so-called light trucks to less-stringent criteria than passenger cars, the court ruled.

Who: The case was brought by California, 10 other states, environmental groups and the cities of New York and Washington.

What’s next: The Bush administration said it was reviewing its options and hadn’t decided whether to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. If the appeals court decision isn’t stayed, the U.S. Department of Transportation will be required to draft new fuel-economy standards.

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Source: Times research


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