California's efforts to combat global warming with tough restrictions on tailpipe emissions got a boost Wednesday from a federal judge, who upheld states' right to require that vehicles emit far fewer pollutants.
The judge, ruling in a lawsuit filed by automakers against Vermont, said that that state's emissions standards -- which are based on those outlined in a 2002 California law -- weren't "sufficiently draconian" to usurp the federal government's right to set fuel economy standards.
U.S. District Judge William K. Sessions III said he was confident that manufacturers could build cleaner cars.
"History suggests," he said in his decision, "that the ingenuity of the industry once put in gear responds admirably to most technological challenges."
A similar suit filed by carmakers against California is awaiting trial in federal court in Fresno. State officials and their environmental allies said they were confident they would win now that Sessions had handed down a 240-page decision studded with sophisticated scientific and engineering arguments dismissing carmakers' claims.
The relatively new emissions rules in California, Vermont and a dozen other states focus on limiting the release of carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases that contribute to rising global temperatures.
The rules' implementation could boost the average fuel economy of gasoline-powered cars to an estimated 43.5 mpg in 2016 from 27.5 mpg today, according to James Tripp, an attorney with Environmental Defense, one of the parties in the Vermont and California lawsuits.
The domestic and foreign auto companies that filed the suits in Vermont and California said in a statement that they were "weighing their options, including an appeal."
Kim Custer, the communications director for the Assn. of International Automobile Manufacturers, which includes Toyota, Nissan, Honda and other foreign firms, said the association was worried that the country could "end up with a patchwork of different regulations as more and more states opt for the California regulations."
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called the Vermont ruling an "important victory in the fight against global warming." The governor and state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown have vowed to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency if it doesn't give California the waiver needed to set its stringent emissions rules in motion. The state requested the waiver in 2005.
"The EPA is in an unconscionable stall," Brown said Wednesday. "It's crystal clear that they must act favorably on California's petition."
EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson will make a final determination on the California waiver request by the end of this year, an agency spokeswoman said.
In the meantime, the auto industry should "stop wasting millions on legal fees and start paying their engineers to build these cars to be cleaner," said David Bookbinder, the head of the Sierra Club's climate change program and a lawyer in the Vermont case.
Bookbinder predicted that the judge in the California case would decide that "another full trial is ridiculous."
Those sentiments were echoed in a letter sent Wednesday to six auto-company chief executives from Schwarzenegger and the governors of New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and nine other states. The letter asked the companies to "withdraw your legal challenges to clean vehicle standards and begin working with us to meet our joint obligations to begin reversing the threat of global warming."
In the Vermont case, the automakers' argument was the same as it is in California: Only the federal government can set fuel-efficiency standards and, indirectly, carbon-emission standards for cars and light trucks.
Congress has deemed California -- which historically has been in the forefront in the fight against air pollution -- the only state that can devise emissions rules that differ from federal standards. Vermont and other states have the right to follow the tighter California standards, if the Environmental Protection Agency approves California's regulations.
The EPA until recently claimed it had no authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas pollution. But the U.S. Supreme Court knocked down that contention in an April 2 decision involving a suit filed by Massachusetts and other states against the Bush administration.
"The Supreme Court recognized for the first time the phenomenon of global warming and its potentially catastrophic effects upon our environment," Judge Sessions said in his decision Wednesday. He concluded that the EPA, and by extension California, "has the authority to monitor and regulate such emissions."
Environmentalists are hoping that the automakers' two recent losses will prompt the federal judge in Fresno to uphold California's ambitious efforts.
"A defeat in California would be a third strike for automakers and would bring an end to their three-year-long legal battle to block the California standard," said Patricia Monahan of the Union of Concerned Scientists.