Judge clears way for greenhouse gas trial

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(Host) A federal judge has cleared the way for a trial next week on whether Vermont can regulate greenhouse gas pollution from cars.

Judge William Sessions rejected the state’s argument to rule in its favor without a trial.

The judge said a recent Supreme Court ruling did not address a central issue in the Vermont case.

And that is whether federal law supersedes the state’s greenhouse gas regulation.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Both sides had carefully studied the Supreme Court decision on greenhouse gas pollution before making their arguments.

The high court said carbon dioxide is a pollutant as defined by the Clean Air Act, and that the Environmental Protection Agency can regulate CO2 emissions from cars and trucks.

Vermont is in federal court defending state regulations that clamp down on CO2 pollution from vehicles. So the state argued on Wednesday that the Supreme Court ruling essentially gave it a slam dunk.

Lawyers representing Vermont’s side said the EPA has allowed states to enact their own air pollution rules so long as they follow California’s lead. Vermont is doing that, they said, and its efforts to regulate CO2 have now been sanctioned, in essence, by the Supreme Court.

But Judge William Sessions said basically, not so fast.

Sessions agreed with the auto industry that a fundamental issue of federal pre-emption remains. And he wants to go to trial to explore that issue.

The pre-emption theory goes like this: A federal law that allows the Transportation Administration to regulate fuel economy pre-empts any state effort to control fuel economy. The industry says the state’s attempt to regulate CO2 is similar to controlling fuel economy. So it says states are blocked – pre-empted by this federal law.

Judge Sessions addressed the issue in court. He said the Supreme Court decision had language that both sides can use.

But, the judge also said this “As to the ultimate question of whether the California regulations are preempted That is not addressed.”

So he said a trial is needed.

(Sounds of the street)

(Dillon) Outside the court room, auto industry lawyer Andrew Clubok said his side is ready for its day in court.

(Clubok) “And we’re going to show that the regulation causes economic hardship. It’s going to eliminate consumer choice for folks here in Vermont and elsewhere want to purchase. It’s going to increase motor vehicle accidents and it’s going to actually lead to more pollution. And those are the facts that we are going to present at trial. And we’re happy the court is giving us the opportunity to present those facts.”

(Dillon) The state and the environmental groups who are helping with the case say they expect to hear some familiar arguments from the car industry next week.

(Hinchman) “The auto makers have a tragic history of crying wolf.”

(Dillon) Steve Hinchman is an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation. He says the industry always complains that regulations are unaffordable, and unworkable.

(Hinchman) “Whether it was seatbelts, catalytic converters, or airbags they’ve said the same thing every time. As a matter fact, on catalytic converters they went to Congress and said, if you force us to do this not only we will go bankrupt, we will drag the whole national economy down with us.’ Of course we all know catalytic converters were cheap, affordable, a great idea, made huge improvements to air quality, didn’t hurt the consumer, they actually improved fuel efficiency.”

(Dillon) Vermont is not alone is requiring the industry to control CO2. Nine other states have adopted California’s clean car rules. The industry has sued in several states to block those rules, but the Vermont case is the first to go to trial.

The trial starts next week.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Burlington.

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