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Fuel rules have a catch

Times Staff Writer

Proposed federal fuel-economy standards issued Tuesday would require cars and trucks to get an average of 31.6 miles per gallon by 2015, a significant increase over the current fleet. But the plan also included surprising language barring California and other states from regulating automobile greenhouse-gas emissions.

The new mileage requirements were warmly received by environmentalists and automakers. The attempt to put restrictions on California, however, brought a fierce response from Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown and other critics, who called it an unexpected attack on the state. The language in question starts on page 374 of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s 417-page document.

“This is a fuel-economy plan that, while attractive on the surface, is an overt attack on California’s regulation,” said Brown, who vowed to sue should the proposal become finalized. “We think this is illegal under federal laws.”

The proposed rules will be open for a 60-day comment period, after which a final version will go into effect; Brown said the state would ask for the disputed language to be removed.

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The proposal was delivered by Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters at an Earth Day ceremony in Washington. In large part, it sets out rules for achieving the fuel-economy standards called for in energy legislation passed by Congress last year. The proposal would save nearly 55 billion gallons of fuel and reduce carbon emissions from vehicles built from 2011 to 2015 by 521 million metric tons, according to the NHTSA.

The proposal requires that cars reach an average efficiency of 35.7 mpg by 2015, compared with the current average of about 31.3 mpg; light trucks must reach 28.6 mpg, up from 23.1 mpg. Under the legislation passed last year, the overall average must reach 35 mpg by 2020.

“This proposal is going to help us all breathe a little easier by reducing carbon dioxide emissions from tailpipes, cutting fuel consumption and making driving a little more affordable,” Peters said.

Initial reaction was positive, with environmentalists and carmakers agreeing that the rules were tough but achievable.

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“Congress has set an aggressive, single, nationwide standard and automakers are prepared to meet that challenge,” said Dave McCurdy, president and chief executive of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which has represented carmakers in court battles over emissions rules.

“It’s a good first start. The first time in many years that they’ve made an improvement like this,” said Jim Kliesch, senior engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Clean Vehicles Program.

But as lawyers for nonprofit groups and state agencies pored over the document, concern arose over the section on the right of states to set their own greenhouse-gas standards separate from federal mileage standards. The NHTSA said it rejected that right, arguing there was “no way that NHTSA can tailor a fuel-economy standard so as to avoid preemption” of state rules.

The highway agency argues that limiting greenhouse-gas emissions is tantamount to setting fuel-economy standards -- something only the federal government can do.

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Lowering auto emissions is crucial to California’s goal of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 80% by 2050, compared with 2006 levels. State officials said current law wasn’t aggressive enough to let California meet its targets.

Under California’s rule, fuel-economy standards would in effect be raised to 42.5 miles per gallon by 2015, according to some calculations.

But since California’s rule was put in place in 2002, it has been under siege by automakers, which have filed numerous lawsuits in a bid to block it.

A series of court rulings in the last two years has favored the state, most recently a November decision in a federal court in Fresno that said California was permitted to set its own emissions regulations.

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Those rulings were important to states beyond California. Only the Golden State is permitted to set its own vehicle emission standards because it began regulating air pollution before the Environmental Protection Agency was created. Under the Clean Air Act, other states can elect to follow federal rules or California’s.

Fifteen states have adopted California’s limits. Together, the 16 states account for about 40% of the U.S. population.

In December, however, the EPA denied a request from California for a waiver to implement the greenhouse-gas emissions rule. That decision was criticized by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and 13 other governors, while members of Congress called for hearings on the decision.

Last month, EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson defended the decision on grounds that battling global warming was a federal issue. He has denied that the White House played a role in the decision.

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All three remaining candidates in the 2008 presidential race have said that they would ask the EPA to grant the waiver. But the NHTSA regulations unveiled Tuesday could render the California rule moot regardless of an EPA waiver, critics said.

“This would trump the need for a waiver,” said Brown. “It says California cannot have an emissions standard.”

Last week, the Justice Department filed a friend of the court brief urging a federal appeals court to dismiss a recent ruling in Vermont favoring California’s right to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions. The agency argued that because the EPA denied the waiver request, the Vermont ruling should be overturned.

Edward B. Cohen, vice president for government relations at Honda Motor Co., said that Tuesday’s proposal from the NHTSA was consistent with the auto industry’s interpretation of the law. “The courts ruled that California can regulate greenhouse gases,” he said. “But we argue that is preempted by the federal fuel-economy statute.”

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Critics, however, noted that last year’s energy legislation specifically stated that it did not limit state authority to take action on global warming -- a point they said they intended to raise vociferously during the 60-day comment period.

“The Supreme Court has ruled on this and two other courts have ruled,” said Ann Mesnikoff, senior Washington representative for the Sierra Club. “I don’t think you can overturn the courts and federal law with a single regulation.”

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ken.bensinger@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Comparing the standards

New federal rules would require increased fuel economy from cars and light trucks by 2015.

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*--* -- Existing Actual Proposed -- mileage current standard -- standards mileage for 2015 -- (in mpg) (in mpg) (in mpg) Cars 27.5 31.3 35.7 Light trucks 22.5 23.1 28.6 *--*

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Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration


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