Bush administration response on car mileage riles governors

The fine print in a new federal plan forbids states from setting their own standards.

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In the politics of science – especially involving the environment and its connection to the economy – nothing is as simple as it seems. That's especially true for global climate change.

On Earth Day (April 22), Transportation Secretary Mary Peters outlined a new plan requiring that the nation's fleet of new cars and trucks achieve 31.6 miles per gallon by 2015. According to the Associated Press:

"Under the plan, the fleet of new vehicles will be required to achieve 27.8 mpg by 2011, with passenger cars achieving 31.2 mpg and pickup trucks, sport utility vehicles, and vans reaching 25 mpg by that year. By 2015, the efficiency of cars will be required to meet 35.7 mpg while the fleet of trucks would need to achieve 28.6 mpg. The plan is expected to save 54.7 billion gallons of oil over the life of the new vehicles built between 2011-2015. It will add an average cost of $650 per passenger car and $979 per truck by 2015…."

With motor vehicles emitting a major portion of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases causing global warming, everyone agrees that improved CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) standards are a good thing. A Los Angeles Times story stated that:

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" 'It's a good first start. The first time in many years that they've made an improvement like this,' said Jim Kliesch, senior engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists' Clean Vehicles Program."

Dave McCurdy, President and CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers acknowledges that carmakers "have a responsibility to increase fuel economy and limit greenhouse gas emissions." In a statement, the industry trade group said:

"Automakers believe this tough, nationwide, proposed fuel economy increase will be good for both consumers and energy security. While these increases will present a challenge, it is critical that automakers and consumers have the certainty that this nationwide, 50-state fuel economy rule provides."

Environmentalists initially found themselves in the odd position of cheering the Bush administration. "But then they read the fine print," said a story in the San Francisco Chronicle:

"Tucked deep into a 417-page 'Notice of Proposed Rulemaking' was language by the Transportation Department stating that more stringent limits on tailpipe emissions embraced by California and 17 other states are 'an obstacle to the accomplishment' of the new federal standards and are 'expressly and impliedly preempted' by federal law."

In plain language, this means that California and the other states – which have faulted the administration for foot-dragging on reducing earth-warming emissions – are not allowed to set their own standards.

Obviously, this does not sit well with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) of California and his fellow governors. Under the Clean Air Act, California can adopt stricter standards by obtaining a waiver from the Environmental Protection Agency. Other states then have the choice of following California's lead.

Sixteen other states – Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, Washington, plus the District of Columbia – have adopted or announced their intention to adopt California's regulations. A story in the Imperial Valley (Calif.) News stated that:

" 'This fuel economy plan, while attractive on the surface, is a shameful and unlawful assault on California's landmark vehicle emissions standards,' Calif. Attorney General Jerry Brown said."

In the wake of the administration's CAFE announcement last week, the governors of a dozen states have written congressional leaders urging lawmakers to fight what they call "a cynical attempt by the US Department of Transportation (DOT) to unilaterally rewrite the Clean Air Act and claim authority over greenhouse gas emissions," as stated in a press release from Governor Schwarzenegger's office. The release continued:

"The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) argues that, because fuel economy is 'related to' greenhouse gases, the US Department of Transportation has the authority to deny state greenhouse gas regulations. NHTSA's proposal flies in the face of court rulings on existing law. The US Supreme Court found in Massachusetts v. EPA that the authority on which the states rely in regulating greenhouse gases from automobiles is 'a statutory obligation wholly independent of DOT's mandate to promote energy efficiency.' Two federal district courts have also specifically ruled that state vehicle regulations are not preempted by Congress's improvements to CAFE."

The governors also wrote the White House that "this attack completely undermines the cooperative federalism principles embodied in the Clean Air Act, and is an end run around 40 years of precedent under that law."

Meanwhile, California and the other states are following a typical political course under such circumstances: They're filing suit to force action under those earlier court decisions, including the US Supreme Court's 5-to-4 ruling a year ago that the EPA has the authority to regulate emissions from new cars and trucks under the Clean Air Act. An online report from Los Angeles radio station KCBS stated that:

" 'The EPA's failure to act in the face of these incontestable dangers is a shameful dereliction of duty,' Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley said. The petition asks the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to require the EPA to act within 60 days."

The drama over motor vehicle emissions thus continues.

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