msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 4/28/2004 4:01:22 PM ET 2004-04-28T20:01:22

The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a Southern California agency may have gone too far in imposing its own antismog rules for city buses, airport shuttles and other vehicles.

The justices, on a 8-1 vote, sided with oil companies and diesel engine manufacturers that claimed that local pollution rules conflict with national standards.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the tougher local rules, but the decision was voided by the high court. The Supreme Court sent the case back to California to consider the issues.

Environmentalists hope the clarification would help their cause. "While the Court today found that Southern California's air district cannot require private fleets to buy new clean fuel vehicles, it left open the door that the six fleet rules may not be preempted in their regulation of public fleets and used and leased vehicles," said Gail Ruderman Feuer, of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"The Court specifically found that fleet rules may avoid preemption if they 'can be characterized as internal state purchase decisions,' which would likely include more than publicly owned fleets, for example, private companies on contract with the government," she said.

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the court, said that the emissions rules appear to blocked by the federal Clean Air Act.

“If one state or political subdivision may enact such rules, then so may any other; and the end result would undo Congress’s carefully calibrated regulatory scheme,” he wrote.

Justice David H. Souter filed the only dissent. Souter, of New Hampshire, said he disagreed that the Clean Air Act “prohibits one of the most polluted regions in the United States from requiring private fleet operators to buy clean engines that are readily available on the commercial market.”

The rules apply to Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside and Orange counties, which together have the nation’s worst air-quality problem. The restrictions were imposed in 2000 and apply to fleets of vehicles such as buses, waste haulers and others.

The Clean Air Act gives states some authority to set their own rules. At issue in Wednesday’s case were local standards.

The case is Engine Manufacturers Association v. South Coast Air Quality Management District, 02-1343.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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