California's authority to pass its own air pollution standards, when they are stricter than federal law, withstood legal challenge Friday when a U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Automobile Dealers Assn. did not have legal standing in the case.
Under the 1970 Clean Air Act, California may request waivers of federal standards in order to
enact its own, stricter laws -- a right granted because the state had its own pollution laws before the federal government’s.
However, the George W. Bush administration refused to grant California a waiver after it enacted a 2004 law to curb planet-heating carbon dioxide emissions from cars. The Obama administration issued the waiver in 2009, but it was challenged by the Chamber and the auto dealers. Fourteen other states had adopted the California standard.
The three-judge panel of the Washington, D.C., Circuit court found that "because the Chamber has not identified a single member who was or would be injured by EPA's waiver decision, it lacks standing to raise this challenge." Nor had the dealers, it said, proved economic harm.
In the end, California and the Obama administration last year issued joint regulations that would curb carbon dioxide pollution by 30% in cars through the 2016 model year. However, environmentalists were concerned that a successful court challenge could thwart future California waivers, as the state prepares to adopt stricter clean-car standards for post-2016 models.
The fact that no California waiver was needed in the pending case may have influenced the court ruling. "Even if EPA's decision to grant California a waiver for its emission standards once posed an imminent threat of injury to the petitioners -- which is far from clear -- the agency's subsequent adoption of federal standards has eliminated any independent threat that may have existed," it said.
Vickie Patton, general counsel of the Environmental Defense Fund, hailed the decision as "a major victory ... to break our dependence on oil, save families money at the gas pump and reduce dangerous pollution."
David Doniger, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said "It is gratifying to see an instance of using standing doctrines evenhandedly against industry-oriented challengers who have no concrete stake in their ideological position."
The U.S. Chamber and the auto dealers have vigorously opposed congressional efforts to pass legislation to curb greenhouse gases from cars, power plants and other industrial sources, saying they would harm the economy. Scientific studies show that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are heating Earth's atmosphere and changing the climate.
California is now negotiating with the EPA and the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration on a second round of clean-car standards for new vehicle models through 2025. Environmentalists are urging rules to hike average fuel economy to 60 miles per gallon and cut carbon pollution by another 40%.
In a statement, the auto dealers association said, "The court failed to even reach the strong merits of our arguments. Unfortunately, this decision leaves in place the existing, extraneous California fuel economy standards. The current system of three overlapping sets of regulations -- set by NHTSA, EPA and California -- makes it more likely that automakers will be forced to build a fleet that does not match consumer demand."
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-- Margot Roosevelt
Photo:The southbound 110 Freeway as seen from Elysian Park in the late morning. Credit: Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times