A boost for clean cars

September 14, 2007

Last spring, when Maryland legislators debated joining with California to toughen standards for vehicle emissions that contribute to global warming, automakers made it clear that they thought the state's legal footing was on shaky ground. Well, the terrain just got a lot firmer with a federal judge's decision Wednesday rejecting the industry's assertion that California standards are too tough and go beyond states' purview.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge William Sessions III in Burlington, Vt., is welcome news for Maryland and the dozen other states that have emulated California's rules. It is not necessarily the last word to be heard from the courts on the matter, but it's clear automakers should take the hint and start investing more money in greener cars and less in lawyers.

Even the Supreme Court has gotten on the environmental bandwagon with its ruling six months ago that the government has the right to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.

How much of the auto industry's objections have been a smokescreen? Judge Sessions certainly wasn't convinced that the California law will cause undue economic hardship or job loss, or somehow make cars less safe. "It is improbable that an industry that prides itself on its modernity, flexibility and innovativeness will be unable to meet the requirements of the regulation," he wrote.

The Maryland law signed by Gov. Martin O'Malley would require automakers to cut fleetwide emissions of carbon dioxide and other global warming gases by 30 percent in 2016. That is likely to force manufacturers to offer the public more small, fuel-efficient cars and fewer SUVs.

But has the Bush administration gotten the message? The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has yet to grant the necessary waiver that would allow California and the other states to regulate carbon dioxide. The Supreme Court decision should have made this a fait accompli, but the administration's review has continued on its glacial pace.

Is it ideal to have California pollution control standards covering some but not all states? No, but it's a product of federal inaction. California's request for a waiver was filed nearly two years ago.

Clearly, a greater sense of urgency is required. Cars are the nation's second-leading source of carbon dioxide emissions, behind power plants. The government's inaction comes at a considerable price - the added millions of pounds of greenhouse gases that are pumped into the atmosphere each day the regulations are further delayed.

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