A Bloody Nose for Detroit

Greens don’t often get good news, but here’s some to relish: A Vermont judge has thrown out automakers’ attempts to block planned fuel-efficiency reforms, affirming the right of individual states to impose clean-tailpipe rules far tougher than those required by Washington.

The decision strengthens the hand of the 13 states that have followed California’s lead in seeking to bolster flaccid federal regulations. Under the new rules, automakers would have to improve fuel efficiency by about 25 percent by 2016, and reduce carbon emissions from new vehicles by nearly a third. Unsurprisingly, that’s got Detroit up in arms. Automakers say the demands, which would affect a third of the US auto market, are technologically impossible, and would lead to chaos and economic meltdown.

But despite pouring resources into the Vermont legal battle, industry lawyers couldn’t convince Judge William Sessions to buy into their doom-mongering. Ridiculing claims that the new rules would tack $6,000 onto the cost of a new car, Sessions wrote: “History suggests that the ingenuity of the industry, once put in gear, responds admirably to most technological challenges."

But while the unambiguous ruling gives a big boost to America’s green states, it’s only the first round in a wider campaign: Automakers are already weighing an appeal against the Vermont decision, and similar lawsuits are pending in California and Rhode Island. And even if the legal challenges fail, Detroit has a shot at a Hail Mary: Under the EPA’s Byzantine rules, none of the states can enforce their green laws until California, which spearheaded the initiative, is granted a waiver from national regulations.

With the other green states riding Sacramento’s coat-tails, industry lobbyists will work hard to persuade the EPA to scupper the clean-tailpipe initiative once and for all. So far officials are stalling, but the EPA has never previously refused California a waiver. With the state threatening to sue if the agency doesn’t deliver, even the automakers’ considerable muscle may not be enough to tip the balance.

Perhaps more plausible is the risk that automakers will now quietly begin damage-limitation operations. Paradoxically, if the industry were to throw its full weight behind a slight tightening of federal regulations, it might well be able to steal the green states’ momentum and prevent their much tougher initiatives from taking root. In Vermont, Detroit came out with guns blazing and earned a bloody nose. In Washington, a low-key approach may ultimately prove much more dangerous.

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