Skirmish Over Auto Industrys Emission Reduction

by : Lauren Woods

A General Motors Corp. executive intimated to a federal judge Tuesday that vehicle carbon emission reductions ordered by California and ten other states would require the 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," he said.

The testimony of the auto executive came as a federal trial got under way in which auto manufacturers are exerting efforts block some states from adopting new standards aimed at decreasing emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide that is intimately linked to climate change.

The automakers dispute that decreasing carbon would require enhancement of fuel economy because carbon emissions are proportional to the amount of gasoline burned. Automakers added that fuel economy is solely under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Transportation. This is mandated by the 1975 federal law.

The states, on the other hand, argue that they can regulate carbon emissions as a tailpipe pollutant under another federal law called the Clean Air Act. The Vermont case is, by far, the first in a series expected to be heard nationwide as the auto industry tries to reduce carbon limits. The case is also the first since the Supreme Court ruled that carbon emissions can be regulated under the Clean Air Act. The said jurisprudence was promulgated last week.

Only the Vermont rules are put at issue in the case before U.S. District Judge William Sessions III. But Charles Territo, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said that whatever its outcome, the case is seen as a bellwether for others around the country.

Weverstad said that under questioning, GM had conducted an engineering study called a "maximum technology scenario," in which it hypothetically said that 89 percent of the cars that it would be selling in the coming nine years and 81 percent of the trucks would be transformed to gas-electric hybrids. However, even with such an approach, the automaker still could not meet the new carbon standards. As a foreseen aftermath, it would be wasting $25 billion or more on the effort.

Matthew Pawa, a lawyer for the environmental groups, sought through questioning to point out that the industry predicted technological 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. The matter is not as easy as enhancing .

"This is the same old saw of pessimism that we've heard from the auto industry time and again," said Christopher Kilian, the director of the Conservation Law Foundation's Vermont office.