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Judge weighs cars and greenhouse gases case

Calling them "purely symbolic," a lawyer for the auto industry urged a judge Tuesday to strike down Vermont's greenhouse gas limits, which the state's lawyer called an important step in addressing climate change.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Following a 16-day trial, a judge on Wednesday was weighing the arguments in a case where the auto industry has sued Vermont over its legislation setting limits on greenhouse gases from vehicles.

Calling them "purely symbolic," a lawyer for the auto industry on Tuesday urged that the limits be struck down.

In closing arguments, Andrew Clubok told the judge that the regulations — adopted by California and 11 other states but yet to take effect anywhere — won't stop global warming but will impose hard-to-meet fuel efficiency standards on automakers.

The limits, which would take effect in the 2009 model year, would require a 30 percent reduce in greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks by 2016, a standard the car makers say would require average fuel economy standards for cars and the lightest category of trucks of 43.7 miles per gallon.

But the regulations should never take effect because federal law pre-empts states from regulating fuel economy, which is the exclusive province of the federal government, according to the auto industry, which is suing in several states to block them from taking effect.

The Vermont case is the first one to go to trial.

U.S. District Judge William Sessions, who presided over the non-jury trial, did not immediately rule Tuesday. He gave lawyers until June 8 to submit supplemental briefs and is expected to rule at some point after that.

Emissions limits or fuel standards?
The state contends that the regulations in question are vehicle emissions limits, not fuel economy standards; the car makers say those things are one and the same.

"They are fuel economy standards, or if not, they are so closely related to fuel economy standards as to be indistinguishable," said Clubok.

"They thought 'If we don't call it a 'fuel economy standard' publicly, maybe that will get us past the legal prohibition," he said.

His closing — like that of Assistant Attorney General Scot Kline, representing Vermont — evolved into a question-and-answer colloquy with Sessions, who peppered them with questions, interrupting the flow of their prepared remarks.

According to Clubok, neither California — which adopted the regulations first — nor Vermont evaluated the auto industry's ability to develop the technology to meet the emissions limits. He called that an oversight that could cost thousands of jobs in the auto and related industries.

"You've got probably tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people who are going to be out of work, and no one even considered that," said Clubok, referring to expert testimony given previously that said the limits — if enacted — would drive up the cost of cars, reduce consumer choice and result in the loss of up to 250,000 jobs, directly and indirectly.

By the automakers' count, the regulations would require average fuel economy standards of 43.7 miles per gallons for cars and 26.9 mpg for light trucks.

Vermont and the other defendant-intervenors in the case say the carmakers have the technology or are capable of developing it to comply with the regulations.

'Optimism versus pessimism'
Kline told the judge that the automakers' case didn't square with the public statements of some of their own CEOs, who have said Detroit must start building cleaner cars and developing alternative fuels.

"This case is really one of optimism versus pessimism," said Kline, who said the dire predictions were based on faulty assumptions by one of the auto makers' expert witnesses.

"Where the foundation is unsound, the structure built on top is unsound, too," he said.

He said the regulations were adopted as part of a larger effort by Vermont to curb air pollution and climate change.

"Why you were doing something is not, theoretically, relevant," Sessions told him.

Emissions from cars and trucks are the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in Vermont, and while the cutbacks won't solve the problem, they are a start, Kline said, echoing earlier testimony by Thomas Moye, a state air pollution control official.