California and 15 other states sued the Bush administration Wednesday, seeking to overturn a federal decision last month rejecting the state’s bid to curb greenhouse gases from cars and trucks.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, marks a new round in an epic five-year struggle between California and the federal government over whether states have the power to regulate carbon dioxide and other pollutants that cause global warming.
The controversy also spilled into Congress, as Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) prepared to hold hearings on whether the White House and automakers influenced the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision, which was required to be based on scientific and legal grounds.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the agency’s funding, on Monday called on the EPA’s inspector general to “immediately open an investigation. . . . The thought has occurred that this was a political decision rather than an environmental decision and that cannot be countenanced.”
Under the federal Clean Air Act, California is allowed to enact stricter air pollution laws than the federal government as long as the state is given a waiver from the EPA. Waivers have been routinely granted in roughly 50 cases during the last three decades, allowing the state to lead the way in catalytic converters, unleaded gasoline and other areas.
But in a two-page Dec. 19 letter to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson denied a waiver for the state’s landmark 2002 law, which seeks to cut greenhouse gas emissions from new vehicles by 30% over the next eight years.
Climate change is a global issue that “extends far beyond the borders of California,” Johnson wrote, adding that new fuel economy standards signed into law last month should lower greenhouse emissions beyond what California proposed.
Schwarzenegger, California Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown and other state officials were joined by five national environmental groups in the lawsuit.
The governor called the EPA decision “unconscionable” in a statement released Wednesday.
“They are ignoring the will of millions of people who want their government to take action in the fight against global warming,” Schwarzenegger said.
Brown, in an interview, noted that Johnson had reportedly ignored his own legal and technical staff’s recommendations to grant the waiver.
“He must have consulted a Ouija board,” Brown said. “I don’t know what else can explain his bizarre decision.”
New York Atty. Gen. Andrew Cuomo echoed Brown’s sentiments, calling the EPA denial “shameful.” Global warming “will have devastating impacts on our environment, health and economy if it continues to go unchecked,” Cuomo said in a statement.
The outcome of the court battle may hinge in part on whether California can show that its greenhouse gas law would reduce emissions more than the new fuel-economy standard -- which sets a fleet-wide average of 35 mpg for cars and light trucks by 2020.
Johnson said California’s standards would amount to only a 33.8 mpg equivalent.
But the technical staff of the state Air Resources Board worked feverishly through the holidays to crunch numbers. Its calculations not only disputed the EPA’s fuel-efficiency estimate but also concluded that California’s rules would achieve twice the greenhouse gas reductions expected under the new federal mpg standard.
“We were frankly stunned” by the EPA’s numbers, Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols said at a news conference Wednesday. “It will be interesting to see what kind of technical analysis EPA is able to produce.”
It will be up to the courts to sort out the numbers once EPA produces its backup studies. The agency has yet to publish the extensive documentation normally provided in the federal register, although it has agreed to release all relevant documents to congressional committees.
Lawyers involved in Wednesday’s court case said the two-paragraph lawsuit was filed very early in the year as a way to force the federal agency to move ahead with a formal notice of its decision.
Cases challenging the EPA are normally filed in federal appeals court in the District of Columbia, but the 9th Circuit is seen as a more favorable venue for their causes, environmental attorneys said.
EPA Assistant Press Secretary Jonathan Schradar declined to discuss the lawsuit, but wrote in an e-mail: “Under the recently signed Energy bill 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.”
Gloria Bergquist, spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, offered a similar argument.
“Congress just passed a tough new national fuel economy law for the next 12 years and beyond, and these new mileage standards will reduce carbon dioxide by 30%,” she wrote in an e-mail.
Whatever the outcome of the lawsuit, California is required by law to slash overall greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. That will entail 174 million metric tons in reductions, of which 18% is to come from tailpipe emissions, the state Air Resources Board estimates.
Nichols said the board would look at other measures to force reductions from cars, including incentives for consumers to purchase cleaner cars. She declined to say if the board would consider taxing cars that emitted the most greenhouse gas emissions.
“The reductions are going to come from cleaner new vehicles one way or another,” she said. “But we do not intend to penalize individual motorists for the failure of the automobile industry to produce cleaner vehicles.”
Nationwide, passenger vehicles generate about 20% of carbon dioxide emissions. In California, the proportion is higher: about a third.
Leading scientists worldwide have said that global carbon dioxide emissions must be slashed by about 80% by mid-century if the worst effects of climate change are to be avoided, including rising seas, melting snowcaps, spreading deserts and widespread species extinction.
California is particularly concerned about water shortages if seawater overwhelms levees and the Sierra Nevada snowpack melts.
The 15 states joining California in the lawsuit are Massachusetts, Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.