Victory for Vermont in greenhouse gas case

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(Host) A federal judge has handed Vermont a major victory in its legal battle with the auto industry over greenhouse gas pollution.

Environmentalists say the ruling is a major milestone in combating global warming.

VPR’s John Dillon has more.

(Host) The Vermont regulations require a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks by 2016.

But the industry made two main arguments. First, it said that Vermont was pre-empted from enacting the rules because the rules essentially regulate gas mileage. The car companies said the authority to regulate fuel economy rests solely with the U.S. Department of Transportation.

And the automakers said even if the state was allowed to set stricter limits on greenhouse gases, the rules would be difficult to meet, and would crush them financially.

Judge Sessions disagreed on both points.

(Hoffer) "We have a 240-page very carefully reasoned opinion here that rules as a matter of law first that the automakers pre-emption challenge here doesn’t even stand."

(Dillon) Melissa Hoffer is a lawyer for the Conservation Law Foundation, one of several environmental groups that intervened in the case.

She points out Sessions also addressed the industry’s technological argument.

(Hoffer) "The judge specifically stated that history suggests that the ingenuity of the industry, once put into gear, responds admirably to most technological challenges. So this is a very important message coming from Judge Sessions that we can meet the challenge that’s presented by climate change."

(Dillon) The federal Clean Air Act specifically sets out a two-tiered process for air pollution regulation. It says states can follow more stringent California rules, or use those set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

So Vermont and 14 other states adopted the California rules to limit greenhouse gas pollution. The industry then sued in a number of states, but the Vermont case was the first to go to trial.

The 16-day trial last spring saw a dozen lawyers representing the industry lined up against environmental groups and lawyers from the states. They argued over technology, engine design, and the science of climate change. It seemed to some court watchers like the state was outgunned by the industry’s legal and technical firepower. But Sessions ended up giving the state a complete victory.

(Parenteau) "This is the equivalent of Appalachian State knocking off Michigan. This is a big one." (Chuckles)

(Dillon) Pat Parenteau is a professor at Vermont Law School and an experienced litigator. He says the strongest part of the ruling was Sessions’ conclusion that the federal gas mileage law does not pre-empt the state from controlling greenhouse gases.

(Parenteau) "It seems to me that the significance of this case is that the law is gradually catching up with the emissions of carbon to the atmosphere. And this case is one more example of how the law is moving closer and closer to actual reductions in greenhouse gas emissions."

(Dillon) Parenteau says the ruling is preliminary in the sense that the EPA still has to adopt a waiver that would allow California to use its more strict standards. Until the EPA acts, the Vermont regulations are also on hold.

But the preliminary nature of the ruling didn’t stop Vermont officials from cheering loudly over the victory.

Attorney General Bill Sorrell praised his legal team, and he said the case is a milestone in the fight against climate change.

(Sorrell) "I think 10 and 20 years from now, people will look back to this case, and this decision, as being a major step forward for those who are concerned about environmental quality generally and global warming particularly."

(Dillon) And Governor Jim Douglas said the judge’s decision will have an impact far beyond Vermont.

(Douglas) "This shows that every state now has the tools necessary to reduce emissions all across the country. So because of our victory, all states can achieve greenhouse gas emissions standards in a very significant way."

(Dillon) The legal fight is far from over. The industry has sued to block similar rules in other states. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers refused an interview request. It issued a statement after Sessions’ decision came down that it is considering all its options, including an appeal.

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

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