Taxpayers Pay the Bill as Automakers Fight Climate Ruling

The regulations over car emissions is becoming a tangled web. (Photo: alexfan32/Shutterstock)

I’m struggling to understand this. The newly eco-friendly federal government is bailing out General Motors and Chrysler, but these same companies, despite repeated court setbacks, are pressing continuing lawsuits against the state of California (and its state allies) for daring to try and regulate greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks.

Of course this means that taxpayers are footing the bill for this, because it’s our bailout money that’s paying the auto industry’s lawyers. According to Steve Hinchman, a staff lawyer for the Conservation Law Foundation and one of the attorneys defending against the industry’s assault against the greenhouse gas law, the carmakers have appealed their loss in the state of Vermont and a hearing is scheduled for March 16 (but is likely to get delayed).

The Bush administration filed a friend of the court brief on the automakers’ behalf, but now Obama’s Justice Department is supporting the states and their climate efforts. It seems unlikely that the carmakers will succeed with this quixotic quest, but they’re continuing to press it. “They’ve given no indication they will withdraw their appeal in the Vermont case, and they’re pursuing an appeal of their loss in Rhode Island as we speak,” Hinchman said. “It looks like they’re throwing good money after bad.”

It’s too bad this whole thing is so numbingly complicated that very few people fully understand it. In fact, Charles Territo, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, tells me that I’m missing the essential point.

“In some cases, the California standard is actually less stringent than the national Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) laws,” Territo told me. “There’s no question that when they were announced in 2005, the California standards were more stringent than federal standards, but in 2007 Congress passed a very stringent federal fuel economy increase to a minimum of 35 miles per gallon by 2020. And the increases proposed as part of the first five years of that law have a very aggressive combined fuel economy target of 31.8 miles per gallon. That exceeds California’s estimated average fleetwide fuel economy by half a mile a gallon.”

The point, he said, is that the automakers want one simple federal standard rather than a patchwork of state laws that, he said, “will force manufacturers to artificially shift their product mixes in different states based on their fleet mix and market share. The beauty and wisdom of one national standard is that it allows manufacturers to balance sales of vehicles in one part of the country with sales in others and still meet a very stringent national standard.”

In the end, a federal standard is what is likely to prevail, and the California law will wither away. A single set of regulations does make sense, but they should be strong enough to make sure we really do make a significant dent in global warming.