Judge backs cleaner cars

Times Staff Writer

A federal court has rejected an effort by carmakers to delay implementation of stringent vehicle emissions standards in California.

The ruling by District Judge Anthony W. Ishii of the Eastern District of California in Fresno was the latest in a series of rebukes to the auto industry’s efforts to gut a state mandate on greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles.

It was hailed as an incremental, but important, victory by environmentalists who hope the law will force carmakers to produce cleaner and more fuel-efficient vehicles. Nevertheless, California still can’t implement those rules until it receives permission from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.


At issue is a California law that calls for a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks between 2009 and 2016.

Under the federal Clean Air Act, other states are permitted to adopt California’s rules on emissions; 15 have done so to date.

Automotive industry groups have said that California’s law on greenhouse gas emissions is too aggressive and could bankrupt the industry. Because such emissions track closely with gasoline usage, the law would effectively require significant advances in fuel economy.

According to the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents 10 carmakers, including General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp., the California law would require cars and some light trucks to achieve an average of 42 miles per gallon by 2015. Current federal mandates call for 35.7 mpg by that date.

“We believe a single, nationwide standard is important,” said Charles Territo, spokesman for the alliance. “We have concerns about the cost-effectiveness of the California regulations.”

In a controversial December decision, the EPA denied the state’s request for the required waiver, prompting California to sue the federal government. Congress, meanwhile, has launched an investigation. Last week, the White House declined to provide Congress with EPA documents on the waiver decision, citing executive privilege.


Both presumptive presidential candidates, Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), have said they would act to grant the waiver if elected.

In Monday’s decision, the judge took what environmental lawyers described as an unusually strident tone in denying appeals by the automakers to delay implementation of the California law until 2017 in the event that an EPA waiver was granted.

Ishii also rejected the automakers’ interpretation of a federal statute -- revolving around the word “or” -- that would make California’s law unenforceable.

“The interpretation requested is without support in law, logic, or grammar,” the judge wrote, denying all the motions filed by the auto industry and calling for the case to be wrapped up within 30 days, meaning further debate would have to be taken up at the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In the last year, automakers have lost major cases in Massachusetts, Vermont, California, the U.S. Supreme Court and elsewhere on the issue of whether individual states can limit greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles.

“The carmakers can keep filing cases until the cows come home,” said Matt Powa, an attorney representing the Natural Resources Defense Fund, the Sierra Club and Environmental Defense in California and Vermont. “This matter is in its death throes.”


Despite the unfavorable outcome in Fresno, the alliance vowed to continue to fight to prevent implementation of the California law.