Opening arguments begin in auto emissions trial

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(Host) In Burlington VT today opening arguments began in what may be one of the biggest challenges to face the auto industry in decades.

The trial amounts to the first court test of whether states can mandate auto emissions standards in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Vermont Public Radio’s Ben Embry was at the courthouse.

(Embry) Backed by seven rows of auto industry executives and lawyers, attorney Andrew Clubok fired the first salvo in the case.

Clubok wanted to make clear what the case was not about – global warming.

In his words it’s utterly irrelevant.

That’s because, according to Clubok, the new emissions standards would have no measurable impact on the environment.

Instead, he said the stricter standards being adopted by Vermont, along with nine other states, really amount to fuel economy standards and are therefore illegal under federal law.

First on the stand for the auto industry was the executive director of General Motors’ Environment and Energy Staff, Allan Weversted.

With more than 35 years of experience in the automotive industry, Weversted called the tailpipe emissions standards unbelievably extreme.

He said it would spell financial disaster for General Motors.

Even with the latest technologies, he said the company would not be able to meet the regulations and could lose more than $25 billion in nationwide sales.

Charles Territo is a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. He says the new restrictions would affect more than just the automakers.

(Territo) “We believe that this could have a devastating impact, not only on the industry but on consumers who wish to purchase many of the vehicles that will be impacted by this regulation.”

(Embry) But proponents of the regulations say the auto industry has used the same arguments before in denouncing attempts to regulate emissions and that the industry is capable of meeting the new mandates.

Chris Killian is a lawyer for the Conservation Law Foundation.

(Killian) “Each time the auto industry has come forward with inflated figures and overstated claims that have proven in fact over time to not bee the case. And consumers have safer vehicles and cleaner vehicles.”

(Embry) Scott Kline, an assistant attorney general, was presenting the case for Vermont.

Kline claimed automakers could comply with the emissions standards, which are set to go into effect in 2009.

He denied claims that the regulations amount to fuel economy standards and, as such, should be allowed under the Clean Air Act, as long as they follow California’s lead.

Kline said that while the state does not deny that the standards will have little impact on global warming, it’s a good start.

For WNPR News, I’m Ben Embry.

(Host) The auto emissions trial is expected to conclude in May.

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