Calif. Court Rejects SUV Mileage Rules

By Frank Ahrens and Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 16, 2007

A federal court in California yesterday rejected the Bush administration's new fuel economy standards for light trucks including SUVs, ruling that the government failed to take into account the effects of carbon emissions and their possible link to global warming.

The finding by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco was a victory for environmentalists and several states that had sued over fuel economy standards, which were announced in 2006. It is among several recent court rulings that have urged greater attention to global warming.

The court's ruling rejects mileage standards that were to have gone into effect next year and would have raised required average fuel economy for light trucks from 21.6 miles per gallon to 23.5 by 2010. The light truck category -- sport-utility vehicles, pickup trucks and minivans -- makes up 50.2 percent of the U.S. automobile market, with passenger cars accounting for the rest.

The court ordered the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to come up with new standards "as expeditiously as possible." Current standards for light trucks are likely to remain in effect until new ones can be formulated, officials said.

The ruling also questioned why the government persists in setting separate, lower standards for trucks. The mileage requirement for cars is 27.5 miles per gallon. The average fuel economy of each manufacturer's fleet of vehicles must meet the standard each year.

California joined nine other states, New York City, the District and groups including the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council in the lawsuit against the federal government.

The Department of Transportation, which oversees NHTSA, had no comment on yesterday's ruling.

California Attorney General Jerry Brown hailed the court's decision, saying his state is in "protracted combat" with automakers over emissions.

"This is a fight for the future of America," Brown said in an interview. "I hope this lights a fire under Congress so they take some strong action."

Linda Singer, the D.C. attorney general, also applauded the decision.

"The District joined this challenge because, like many urban areas without industry, it is disproportionately affected by vehicular pollution," Singer said in a statement. "On a typical summer day, on-road vehicles in the District contribute approximately half of the pollutants that lead to smog."

Charles Miller, a spokesman for the Justice Department's civil division, said the government was reviewing the decision and "considering all of our options."

The government could request a rehearing by the same three-judge panel, ask the full court to consider the case or petition the Supreme Court for review.

The decision is one of a number of recent legal actions on vehicle emissions and fuel economy at a time of heightened concern about global warming and $3-per-gallon gasoline.

Two years ago, California sought a waiver from the Environmental Protection Agency to implement its own, tougher emissions standards, which the EPA has not granted. The state is suing the EPA.

The auto industry, meanwhile, is suing California to prevent it from enacting its own standards, arguing that they should be the province of the federal government and fearing the creation of a nationwide patchwork of standards. A federal court ruled in September that Connecticut, California and Vermont could set their own emissions standards. In April, the Supreme Court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency must consider whether carbon dioxide is a harmful pollutant.

And Congress is considering two bills that would force vehicle manufacturers to raise their gas-mileage numbers in coming years.

Automakers plan to proceed as if the 2006 fuel economy standards are still in effect, said Gloria Bergquist, spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group.

"Ongoing advancements by auto engineers are leading to even greater fuel economy gains," Alliance President Dave McCurdy said in a statement. "A good balance of safety, higher fuel economy, and jobs benefits all Americans."

Tom O'Dell, an auto analyst with Edmunds, called the ruling a "huge victory for the environmental groups" and the 11 states and cities but pointed out that it probably will have no immediate impact on auto buyers.

Nevertheless, it is "another one of the federal courts saying, 'Hey, greenhouse gas is something that needs to be considered as we're dealing with the auto industry and emissions and mileage,' " O'Dell said. "It's a decision that's going to bounce around a bit and have a lot of impact."

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