Landmark greenhouse gas trial drawing to close

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(Host) A federal judge will soon decide whether Vermont can force the auto industry to reduce greenhouse gas pollution.

A landmark trial that tests the legality of Vermont’s new regulations will end this week in Burlington.

VPR’s John Dillon has been covering the trial and has this report.

(Dillon) U.S. District Judge William Sessions has spent weeks listening to highly technical, often mind-numbing testimony. Witnesses have talked at length about engine designs, aerodynamic drag co-efficients, carbon dioxide levels, and the earth’s rising temperature since the last Ice Age.

It’s all part of a huge body of evidence the judge will consider as he decides whether Vermont can go forward with new rules calling for a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2016.

The car companies say the rules are unworkable and illegal. The state and its environmental allies say the regulations are an important first step to curb global warming.

Eleven states, including Vermont, have adopted California’s clean air standards for cars and light trucks.

The industry has sued to block the rules in several states. The Vermont case is the first to go to trial. And both sides agree that the federal court here is a key first step to determine whether the rules will survive.

(O’Donnell) “If Vermont wins, as we think it will, it may well influence the other trials and encourage other states to adopt the California standards, and move forward and make them very widespread throughout the United States.”

(Dillon) Frank O’Donnell is president of Clean Air Watch, a non-profit group based in Washington.

He says the outcome of the Vermont case could also have an impact on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Under the Clean Air Act states can adopt the EPA’s clean air rules – or they can follow the lead of California, which began regulating air quality before the federal government. But the EPA has not yet granted California a waiver to enforce its greenhouse gas rules.

(O’Donnell) “I think the Bush Administration has been looking for excuses to try to turn down California’s request to side with the car companies. But if Vermont wins its case that’s going to be real tough for the Bush Administration to say no’.”

(Dillon) The industry has argued in court that Vermont’s rules are illegal. The car companies say the regulations in effect regulate vehicle fuel economy, and they say only the federal government is allowed to set mileage standards.

Charles Territo is a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

(Territo) “Federal law is designed to ensure a consistent fuel economy program across the country. And whether that program is being enacted in Vermont or any other state we believe that’s pre-empted under federal law.”

(Dillon) The industry also makes the argument that they can’t meet the standards, and that the expense would cost tens of thousands of jobs. Territo says consumers would also have fewer models to choose from.

(Territo) “What you would see is that consumers in states with these emission standards would not have the same vehicle choice that consumers in other states. Essentially, consumers in New Hampshire would have a choice of different vehicles than consumers in Vermont.”

(Dillon) But Vermont and environmental groups argue that the car companies will be forced to adapt – either by the new regulations or by the skyrocketing price of gasoline. They say car companies will have to offer customers more choice in fuel efficient cars.

During cross-examination on Monday, an engineer for the auto industry said he made his projections when gasoline prices were about $1.75 a gallon. Gas prices recently hit $3 a gallon in Vermont.

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

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