Court Deals Car Companies a Blow
Air Date: Week of September 14, 2007
A decision by the U.S. District Court in Vermont approved the state’s right to adopt a California rule designed to limit greenhouse gas emission from cars. Living on Earth speaks with one of the lead environmental attorneys who represented Vermont in the court case.
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts-- this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. A federal judge says if states want vehicles that emit less climate-changing gases, automakers have to build them.
The ruling is a blow to car companies that brought a lawsuit against Vermont in a last-ditch effort to derail proposals in a number of states to set tougher standards on tailpipe emissions. David Bookbinder is chief climate counsel for the Sierra Club. He was a member of the legal team that successfully opposed the carmakers suit in U.S. District Court.
BOOKBINDER: This is an extremely important decision. This tells the world that the auto industry can build cars that emit far fewer greenhouse gases. In its way it is as important as the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year that found that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are covered by the Clean Air Act.
CURWOOD: Now explain for me why a district court ruling is as important as a Supreme Court ruling on something like this.
BOOKBINDER: Because it’s a question of fact. It’s not a legal question. And it was a district court judge who sat through 16 days of testimony, thousands of pages of trial transcripts, tens of thousands of pages of documents and other evidence that were submitted to the court. He listened to the auto industry’s experts, their employees, their vice presidents that came in parading in one after the other. And then he listened to our experts. And we said that they could build these cars. Detroit said ‘no, we can’t build them and if we tried, they’d be so expensive that we’d simply have to get out of the business of making passenger cars for the United States.’ And the judge said, ‘I’ve now looked at all the evidence, I’ve heard the witnesses, I’ve reviewed the technology up, down, sidewise, inside and out and I don’t believe you. I believe that the technology is feasible. It’s not going to be excessively costly. You can build these cars.’ And now we, the environmental community is saying to Detroit: please, please stop spending money on the lawyers. God only knows they must have spent upwards of $50 million dollars on this case—um, give the money to your engineers and lets get those cars on the road.
CURWOOD: Now if I understand the law that was in play here, this was the California regulations that would have called for a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks by what—the year 2016?
BOOKBINDER: That’s correct.
CURWOOD: And that, at the end of the day, this would require average fuel standards for cars and the lightest category of trucks to be up—what, almost 44 miles per gallon?
BOOKBINDER: Um, that works out about correct. That is correct.
CURWOOD: And this is what Detroit said they couldn’t do and what the judge says they can, and what they must do if they want to sell cars in Vermont.
BOOKBINDER: That is correct. But the real significance of this decision is going to be felt in Congress. Congress is considering right now an energy bill that, among other things, has a provision that calls for an increase in the fuel economy standards. Those standards have not been increased since 1975. Detroit is making cars to a standard that was established more than 30 years ago and has consistently said, ‘we can’t do better, we can’t do better, blah, blah, blah.’ Now, the judge in Vermont just said, ‘you can comply without much of a problem with the California standards.’ And we’re now going to say to Congress: If the judge found that you can comply with the California standards you can certainly comply with far less stringent standards that are being contemplated by Congress in the energy bill. And this is not a case of the automakers standing up and giving their 30-second speech ‘we can’t do it’ and us standing up and saying, ‘you can.’ We have a judge who has gone through it-- inch by inch, line by line, witness by witness—in a trial the auto industry demanded, and he’s turned them down cold.
CURWOOD: So what do you think this means for the major manufactures of cars? How sufficient is this ruling to get them to change the way they make cars?
BOOKBINDER: Oh, I think this is an enormous step forward. I think this is, I think this is the beginning of the end of the auto industry’s fight to stay mired in the early 20th century. We want to drag them kicking and screaming into the 21st century and I think this is the most significant step—at least on the legal frontier—that we could take. And if all goes according to plan these standards are going to phased in in the next few years and we’re going to start seeing far cleaner, far more fuel-efficient vehicles, emitting far fewer greenhouse gases.
CURWOOD: David Bookbinder is chief climate counsel for the Sierra Club. Thank you so much, sir.
BOOKBINDER: Thank you very much.
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