The Fuel Emission Wars

A coalition of the nation's largest carmakers filed suit in federal court in Fresno, California Tuesday challenging California's new standards for vehicle emissions of greenhouse gases responsible for global warming. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers argues that Californians would pay "an average of $3,000 more" for a new automobile and "would never recoup those extra, up-front dollars through savings at the gas pump."

The automakers claim that California is barred from curbing vehicle emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases because federal law grants sole authority to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to set a uniform, national fuel economy standard.

The Alliance bases its case on the principle that carbon dioxide and fuel economy are "synonymous."

"Federal law is designed to ensure a consistent fuel economy program across the country," said Fred Webber, president and CEO of the Alliance. "There's a better way to improve fuel economy than this regulation, such as providing consumer tax incentives for the purchase of our new advanced technology vehicles."

"California is regulating air pollution, not setting fuel economy standards," argues David Doniger, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and head of the environmental community's legal team defending the California standards. "California is acting well within its rights to protect its people, its natural resources, and its economy from automotive air pollution," he said.

The federal Clean Air Act guarantees California's right to control air pollution from motor vehicles, says Doniger.

Ordered under legislation passed in July 2002, the standards were adopted in September by the California Air Resources Board. The new rules give car companies until 2016 to achieve a 30-percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from new cars, pickups, minivans and SUVs sold in the state.

"Congress gave exclusive authority to NHTSA to set the maximum feasible fuel economy standards," the Alliance says. "To do this, NHTSA must balance technological feasibility, affordability, safety, emissions controls, consumer choice and effects on American jobs."

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has promised to implement the statute and defend it against outside legal interference.

While not disputing that new car buyers will pay more once the new standards are in effect, Doniger says consumers will save money because these emission-control technologies also save fuel. "This is about using better technology in engines, transmissions and other vehicle components to control the air pollution that causes global warming," he said.

The Alliance argues that the regulation outlines "a theoretical vehicle never before built, and the automobile envisioned by regulators would not achieve the expected fuel efficiency."

"If every automobile in California were eliminated, there would be no identifiable change in temperature or climate in the state," the Alliance claims. "The regulation would only reduce greenhouse gases by 1/10 of one percent globally. Californians would see no health benefits from this regulation. The regulation only addresses carbon dioxide, not smog. Unlike smog, carbon dioxide poses no health hazard."

But scientists have been detailing the health risks of global warming in a constant stream of studies. Climate change will double the risk of heat waves in Europe, an international team said late last week.

"Disproportionately large and negative impacts on the elderly, the infirm, and the poor are likely to result," the Pew Center on Global Climate Change said in January 2001.

Studies by public health organizations have found indications that a global warming trend may increase the risks that vector and waterborne diseases, such as dengue fever, will spread northward.

The lawsuit comes amid growing public and policymaker support for encouraging the use of innovative technology, such as hybrid gas-electric vehicles already on the market, that would achieve the rule's mandate.

At least seven other states – New York, Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Jersey – are moving to adopt California's global greenhouse gas emission standards. Last month, Canadian officials indicated plans to adopt similar rules. The states and Canada combined would account for about 25 percent of the two countries' combined car market.

An NRDC post-election poll released today reflects strong public support for regulations that mandate cleaner cars with better technology. A survey of 1,300 voters nationwide by the polling firm Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner found that 73 percent support California's emissions law.

"Corporate management at GM, Ford, and Chrysler has always been slow to read the changing tide of public opinion, and this lawsuit reflects that short-sighted reflex," said Roland Hwang, NRDC auto analyst. "The Big Three are now way behind the curve on hybrids and are losing market share to more innovative competitors."

"Once again, we are especially disappointed in GM," said Hwang. "GM is spending millions of dollars advertising their environmental commitment, yet is suing California instead of following the law and manufacturing clean vehicles."

But the Alliance says it favors consumer tax incentives over regulation to achieve diminished greenhouse gases.

"Automakers are investing billions of dollars to develop and introduce new fuel efficient automobiles with cutting edge technologies like cylinder deactivation, hybrid-electric power trains, clean diesel, continuously variable transmissions, hydrogen internal combustion engines, and fuel cells," the Alliance said.

"Consumer tax incentives can help spur sales of these vehicles. It is imperative that these incentives are technology neutral, the Alliance said. "The government should not pick winners and losers, but rather let consumers and the marketplace choose which technologies make sense for them."

The Alliance joins a group of automobile dealers in California's Central Valley in the legal action.

"This regulation is inconsistent with federal law, as well as fundamental principles for sound regulation of motor vehicles," said Webber. "It leaves us with no alternative but to join dealers in a legal challenge on behalf of automakers, dealers and consumers."

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers is a trade association of nine car and light truck manufacturers including BMW Group, DaimlerChrysler, Ford Motor Company, General Motors, Mazda, Mitsubishi Motors, Porsche, Toyota and Volkswagen.

The Alliance filed its lawsuit on the same day as the release of "Automaker Rankings 2004," a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists that ranks Ford as having "the absolute worst heat-trapping gas emissions performance of all the Big Six automakers." The Environmental Protection Agency has ranked Ford with the worst overall fuel efficiency of all major automakers for 20 or the last 30 years, including every year since 2000.

"Instead of hiring lawyers and lobbyists to fight against reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Ford and other automakers should be hiring engineers to comply with this eminently reasonable law," said Jason Mark, clean car campaigner at the human rights group Global Exchange. "Rather than resist progress, Ford and other automakers need to start driving progress forward."

"By joining this lawsuit, Ford is proving to Americans that it is unwilling to meet growing public demand for fuel-efficient cars," said Jennifer Krill, director of the Zero Emissions Campaign at Rainforest Action Network. "How can anyone believe Ford's claims about 'greening the blue oval' while the company supports a Federal lawsuit to overturn California's landmark environmental legislation?"

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