Handing a major defeat to the auto industry, a federal judge ruled Wednesday that California can regulate greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles.
The ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Anthony Ishii clears one of the hurdles in California's effort to regulate tailpipe emissions from cars, trucks and sports utility vehicles.
Automakers sued the state over the tailpipe standards it approved in 2004, which would force automakers to build cars and light trucks that produce about 30 percent fewer greenhouse gases by 2016.
However, the state still needs a waiver from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to begin implementing the program. The EPA has not yet issued a decision. California and 14 other states sued the agency in November seeking quicker action.
"It's a major victory and a giant step forward for California," California Attorney General Jerry Brown said of Wednesday's ruling. "I hope this will get the attention of President Bush and have him support significant caps on greenhouse gas emissions."
In its lawsuit against the state, the auto industry argued that it was the federal government's responsibility to establish one uniform fuel economy standard. Without one, manufacturers would be forced to produce vehicles using too many different efficiency standards.
They argued that a federal energy law passed in 1975 gives the U.S. Department of Transportation sole jurisdiction over fuel economy.
But Ishii rejected that claim, saying Congress gave California and the EPA the authority to regulate vehicle emissions, even if those rules are more strict than those imposed by the federal government.
"While we have not yet had an opportunity to analyze the California federal court's decision, we are obviously very disappointed by this result," said Michael Stanton, president and CEO of the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers.
Under the Clean Air Act, California is the only state that can set its own vehicle pollution standards, because it started regulating air pollution before the U.S. EPA was created. Other states are free to choose either the California rules or the federal government's.
The state's tailpipe emissions are key to California's goal of lowering greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. About a third of the state's emissions come from cars, pickups and sport utility vehicles, a figure that will only grow if they are not regulated in the nation's most populous state.