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The State

Injunction Holds Up ZEV Program

Courts: Judge's action in suit against California by auto makers could delay the arrival of more low-emissions vehicles.

June 15, 2002|GARY POLAKOVIC and JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A federal judge has temporarily blocked California from moving ahead with plans to introduce advanced technology cars, throwing the state's electric vehicle program into turmoil at the moment auto makers are poised to mass produce the cleaner machines.

While the U.S. district court decision leaves intact the state's zero emissions vehicle mandate, it sets aside key amendments that air quality officials approved last year.

Those amendments granted the auto industry wide flexibility in choosing what type of cars to build. The amendments favored hybrid vehicles, fuel-cell engines and super-clean gasoline models over battery-powered cars.

However, General Motors and DaimlerChrysler sued California to overturn the amendments, and the entire so-called ZEV program, contending the Air Resources Board overstepped its authority in approving revisions to the 12-year-old program. In a ruling announced Friday, U.S. District Judge Robert E. Coyle issued a temporary injunction until the lawsuit is decided, which could take many months.

"This does not throw out the ZEV mandate, but we can no longer provide the same level of options and flexibility," said Michael P. Kenny, the ARB's executive officer.

Indeed, the ruling may be a pyrrhic victory for auto companies because it apparently leaves intact an older, more stringent version of the regulation, which requires 4% of all new cars sold in California to emit no tailpipe exhaust. That standard is the most stringent in the world, but it canonly be met using battery power, which auto makers and state air quality officials acknowledge is not yet ready for prime time.

"It's ironic that the ARB has bent over backward to provide flexibility the auto companies asked for, and what do they get? Auto makers suing them over the option that grants them additional flexibility," said Roland Hwang, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The court ruling comes at a particularly sensitive time in the program as auto makers are required to roll out thousands of low- or non-polluting cars as early as next year. With the new model year months away, a trickle of clean machines is taking to the road, including hybrids such as the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic and Insight, as well as smaller electric cars like GEM by DaimlerChrysler and Think from Ford. How many more will follow and how soon they arrive is now uncertain.

GM spokesman Donn Walker said the company was pleased with the judge's decision and will spend the coming weeks determining the company's next step.

"We've always believed this to be a long, drawn-out legal battle and we still believe that to be the case. We always thought we had a strong legal argument, and I believe it got a lot stronger today. We're very pleased," Walker said.

California and auto makers in Japan and Detroit have been at odds over the ZEV program since it was launched more than a decade ago. Because of the state's severe smog, California is the only state allowed under the Clean Air Act to regulate tailpipe exhaust. That authority has led to the nation's most stringent controls on cars and light trucks.

Yet with so many cars on the road today, air quality officials say smoggy regions such as Los Angeles and the San Joaquin Valley have little chance of reaching smog standards without a quantum leap toward non-polluting vehicles.

Judge Coyle's ruling, signed Tuesday and released Thursday, provides regulators and auto makers a powerful new incentive to settle on yet another approach to the beleaguered ZEV program.

Auto makers vigorously oppose a requirement for mass production of full-size electric cars because they fear consumers will be turned off by the costs and limitations of battery technology. Yet, the older version of the rule the ARB may now pursue requires just that.

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