In a decision that could set a precedent for local governments across the United States, trash haulers, school and city bus lines and other publicly funded fleets in Southern California can be required to buy low-polluting vehicles fueled by natural gas or other alternative fuels, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.
But private and federal fleets such as Federal Express and the U.S. Postal Service might not be covered under such rules, because the federal Clean Air Act might trump local regulation. The appeals court sent that portion of the case back to district court to decide separately.
Southern California air regulators and environmental groups expressed satisfaction with Monday's ruling.
"We're thrilled," Barbara Baird, principal deputy counsel for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, said Tuesday. "We really need the emissions reductions from these rules, and this case may set an important precedent for other state and local governments that want to adopt clean fleet provisions."
"The natural gas buses and garbage trucks on the streets every day aren't there by chance. They exist because of our victories in this litigation," said David Pettit, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council and director of its Southern California Air Program.
An estimated 6,000 new vehicles, mostly powered by compressed natural gas, have been purchased by agencies in the region since the rules were put in place. Old school buses and other diesel vehicles are among the dirtiest on area roads, contributing to both diesel soot and smog. Purchasing new, alternative-technology vehicles might initially be more costly than buying diesel equipment, but it saves lives and costs over the long run, regulators said.
Angelo Bellomo, director of environmental health and safety for the Los Angeles Unified School District, said the district has replaced about 10 percent of its school bus fleet with compressed natural gas units, largely by aggressively applying for and winning grant money.
"It's a stretch to do this, yes, but it's worth it," he said.
Petroleum and engine manufacturing groups noted the battle isn't over, and added that diesel technologies are becoming equally clean.
"Clearly we're disappointed that the 9th Circuit ruled this fleet rule does apply to purchases by state and local government, but the appeals court . . . remanded it back to district court to decide whether or not this can apply to private fleets," said Tupper Hull, spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Assn.
"They do get to continue to enforce rules on local governments," said Joe Suchecki, spokesman for the Engine Manufacturers Assn., who said the organization has vigorously fought Southern California's regulations because they could spread to other states and cities, creating a "patchwork of different regulations" that would make it difficult and costly to manufacture different equipment for different localities.
Suchecki and Jed Mandel, president of the engine manufacturers group, said AQMD's rules are out of date because they ban diesel engines and fuels, both of which have made huge strides toward cleaner technology in recent years due to federal and state laws.
But AQMD spokesman Sam Atwood said natural gas engines are years ahead of diesel technologies on meeting federal and local standards. He said the district's regulations had put pressure on diesel manufacturers to clean up their act or lose a lot of business.
"If and when diesel engines are as clean as natural gas," then agencies will no longer be banned from purchasing them, he said.