Automakers pitch first climate-change court fight in Vermont

The case began just days after a US Supreme Court ruling that the Environmental Protection Agency must regulate greenhouse gases.

By , Staff writer

The legal fight over global warming entered the realm of states' rights this week – a political arena that could dramatically shape the way in which the United States tackles climate change.

In federal court in Burlington, Vt., April 10, automakers and dealers challenged the state's right to regulate carbon-dioxide emissions. It was the first in what are expected to be a series of court fights over jurisdiction in stemming global warming.

In opening testimony, auto executives issued stark warnings.

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"The standards we've had to make changes to in the past are incremental," said Alan Weverstad, executive director of General Motors' environment and energy unit. Lowering carbon emissions as much as the states want will involve "fuel economy requirements that are just unbelievably extreme," he told the Associated Press.

Environmental advocates said GM's argument smacked of crying wolf.

"This is the same old saw of pessimism that we've heard from the auto industry time and again," said Christopher Kilian, director of the Vermont office of the Conservation Law Foundation. He pointed to catalytic converters, air bags, and seat belts as just some of the technologies imposed by regulators over the objections of manufacturers.

Coincidentally, the Vermont court case begins just days after Massachusetts and 11 other states (including Vermont) won a US Supreme Court ruling that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must exercise its authority under the federal Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases – a position opposed by the Bush administration.

The Rutland Herald, one of Vermont's leading newspapers, said in an editorial that the ruling hurts the auto industry's stance that state's don't have the authority to regulate auto emissions.

"It is not clear what effect the Supreme Court ruling will have on the cases involving Vermont, California, and other states. The auto industry has argued that the states, like the EPA, do not have the authority to regulate auto emissions. But the Supreme Court ruling, which recognized the peril of climate change and the connection with auto emissions, has dealt a grievous blow to that position."

While the Vermont case specifically concerns one small state and its ability to regulate tailpipe emissions, the courtroom is expected to host a broad and deep discussion of global warming, reports the Burlington Free Press, another major newspaper in the Green Mountain State:

"Among other witnesses, the state will call James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the leading voices in the science of climate change. Hansen, who will appear as a private citizen, will testify about the reality of global warming and the necessity for steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions."

In a trial document, Mr. Hansen warned, "The proposed reduction of vehicle emissions is only a first step, if large climate change is to be avoided. Vehicle emissions must decline even further within a few decades."

Detroit automakers are fighting efforts by Vermont, California, and other states to regulate auto emissions tied to global warming. But that is not the position of many in the foreign (largely Asian) auto industry, "some of whom are trying to create 'eco-friendly' reputations," reports The New York Times.

Michael Stanton, president of the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, told the Times:

"We believe that there is enough information out there to address climate change, and we know that cars – passenger cars and light trucks – contribute, and we want to be part of the solution."

Community Rights Counsel (CRC), a public interest law firm in Washington, keeps track of court cases dealing with climate change, including those brought by and against states like Vermont. In its "Warming Law" blog, the law firm notes:

"California and 11 other states have passed laws that limit the greenhouse gas emissions from new cars and trucks sold in those states, starting with the 2009 model year. Before these laws take effect, EPA has to grant California a waiver for its standards (which frees the other 11 states to implement them), and some states (California, Vermont, and Rhode Island) have to win lawsuits brought by the automobile industry to block the emissions laws."

The day after last week's Supreme Court ruling on climate change, the presiding judge in the Vermont case, US District Court Judge William Sessions III, declined to honor an immediate request from Green Mountain State officials to toss out the automakers' suit there, reports StateNet.com's Capitol Journal, which monitors state legislation.

Judge Sessions said he is allowing the case to proceed so that "there will be a full record to go forward to the appeals court or the Supreme Court or a higher authority, if there is a higher authority."

Vermont may be the first of a bevy of hard-fought court cases – followed by inevitable appeals brought by the losers. Legal battles over who gets to control emissions of carbon, the main greenhouse gas, could go on for years.

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