WASHINGTON — A federal lawsuit by two industry groups aims to halt the U.S. government and the state of California from moving ahead with new greenhouse gas emissions rules for cars and trucks -- an action that, if successful, could scuttle a key piece of the Obama administration's plans to set stricter nationwide standards for vehicles.
The lawsuit may be the first of many legal challenges targeting President Obama's efforts to limit the heat-trapping emissions that scientists blame for global warming. Some industry groups, for instance, already contend that his efforts could damage the domestic economy.
The suit filed Tuesday by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Automobile Dealers Assn. seeks to block the waiver that the Environmental Protection Agency granted to California under the Clean Air Act to set vehicle emissions standards.
That waiver was the subject of years of legal battles before the EPA officially granted it in July. The Bush administration initially rejected the request, but soon after Obama's inauguration, the new president asked the EPA to reconsider.
At issue was how to interpret the Clean Air Act, which allows California to ask the agency for permission to set stricter pollution standards than the federal government's. The state had sued to compel the EPA under the Bush administration to grant the waiver.
In May, Obama announced an agreement with California officials, environmental groups and major automakers that would lead to the creation of a national vehicle emissions standard, which would have the effect of boosting fuel-economy requirements 40% over the current 25-miles-per-gallon level. The national standards would largely mimic California's.
The lawsuit isn't challenging the standard directly. Rather, it argues that the waiver sets a dangerous precedent of allowing a state to regulate what should be a national issue: global warming.
The Chamber of Commerce made a similar argument in a past court case, filing a brief in support of the Bush administration's decision to deny California's waiver request.
On Thursday, EPA officials defended their decision to grant the waiver, saying they acted "after a comprehensive analysis of the science and in adherence to the rule of law."
The agency said it "believes strongly" that it was right and that the court would find its decision was "entirely consistent with the law."
California officials criticized the lawsuit.
"We are very disappointed that these parties continue to pursue an outdated course of action designed to obstruct and oppose efforts to move us toward a cleaner environment and greater energy security," said Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board.
The waiver lawsuit is probably the "leading edge" of a "hurricane of corporate challenges" to climate-related policies from Obama's EPA, said Frank O'Donnell, president of the environmental group Clean Air Watch.
"This may just be a delaying action by the chamber," he said. "But it does raise the stakes in this issue right away."
The Chamber of Commerce also has threatened to sue to stop a proposed climate-related ruling by the EPA: the "endangerment finding."
The proposed finding declares greenhouse gases to be a threat to human health because of their contributions to global warming, and therefore to be subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act.