Fight over auto gases begins in Vt. court
By DAVID GRAM The Associated Press | April 11,2007
BURLINGTON — A General Motors executive told a federal judge Tuesday that vehicle carbon emission reductions ordered by California and 10 other states would require average fuel economy standards for cars and the lightest category of trucks of 43.7 miles per gallon.
"The standards we've had to make changes to in the past are incremental," said Alan Weverstad, executive director of GM's environment and energy unit.
Lowering carbon emissions as much as the states want will involve "fuel economy requirements that are just unbelievably extreme."
The testimony Tuesday came as a federal trial got under way in which carmakers are trying to block states from adopting new standards aimed at lowering emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas tied to global climate change.
The companies argue that reducing carbon requires improving fuel economy, since carbon emissions are proportional to the amount of gasoline burned. And they say fuel economy, under a 1975 federal law, is solely under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The states argue that they can regulate carbon emissions as a tailpipe pollutant under another federal law, the Clean Air Act.
That 1970 law set up a two-tiered system under which California and other states that have joined it are allowed to set limits on pollution from vehicles that are more stringent than those set by the federal government. States could choose either the federal rules or the California rules.
California amended its rules in 2005 to add carbon dioxide to the list of pollutants it has regulated for decades, and so far 10 other states have adopted the updated California rules.
The Vermont case is the first in a series expected to be heard around the country as the auto industry tries to knock down carbon limits. It is also the first since the Supreme Court ruled last week that carbon emissions can be regulated under the clean air act.
Only the Vermont rules are at issue in the case before U.S. District Court William Sessions III. But Charles Territo, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said whatever its outcome, the case would be seen as a bellwether for others around the country.
The trial is expected to last about three weeks.
Vermont is the principal defendant for now, but it's getting help from the state of New York and several regional and national environmental groups.
"The Vermont regulation, by itself, will not stop global warming. But the evidence will show it's a start," Vermont Assistant Attorney General Scot Kline said in his opening statement.
GM's Weverstad said under questioning that the company had conducted an engineering study called a "maximum technology scenario," in which it hypothetically said 89 percent of the cars it sells in the next nine years and 81 percent of the trucks would be converted to gas-electric hybrids.
Weverstad said it found that even with such an approach, it still could not meet the new carbon standards, and that GM would waste $25 billion or more on the effort.
Matthew Pawa, a lawyer for the environmental groups that have intervened in the case on Vermont's side, sought through questioning to point out that the auto industry had predicted technological failure and economic calamity when the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, when the law requiring fuel economy standards passed five years later and when other regulations were taking effect.
At a news conference outside the courthouse, two environmental groups sought to expand on that point.
"This is the same old saw of pessimism that we've heard from the auto industry time and again," said Christopher Kilian, director of the Conservation Law Foundation's Vermont office. He added catalytic converters, air bags and seat belts to the lists of technologies imposed by regulators over manufacturers' objections.