It is not surprising that automakers have sued to negate Maine’s new rules for automobile emissions since they’ve pursued litigation against other states that have adopted similar standards. Because federal regulators have also weighed in against state rules, it is likely the emissions standards will be tied up in court and regulatory limbo for a long time. In the meantime, economics and public attitudes are likely to do more to move drivers into less polluting vehicles than rules and lawsuits.
Last month, the Board of Environmental Protection adopted California’s auto emissions standards for vehicles sold beginning in 2009. The new rules require a 30 percent reduction by 2016 in emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, that are linked to global warming.
Automakers have challenged the rules in court arguing that their arguments weren’t given enough weight by the BEP and that the rule change required legislative review. The Legislature last year passed a bill that gave the BEP authority to develop vehicle emissions standards to comply with federal clear air requirements. The automakers testified before and submitted documents to the BEP, as did many other groups.
A bigger threat than their lawsuit is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recent statement that it prefers methods other than regulating tailpipe emissions to reduce carbon dioxide pollution. The agency must approve California’s program before its standards can take effect there and in the 10 other states, including Maine, that have adopted them. Because the best way to lower emissions is to increase fuel economy, the agency parrots the industry claim that this will force people into smaller, unsafe cars.
A study published last week in the journal Pediatrics pokes a large hole in the logic that smaller cars are less safe than larger vehicles. The study found that because they are more than twice as likely to roll over in a crash, sport utility vehicles are not safer for children than smaller vehicles. Children in rollovers were three times more likely to be seriously injured than those in non-rollover accidents, according to the study, funded in part by the world’s largest insurer, State Farm Insurance.
Congress last year approved legislation requiring the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to develop standards for automakers to address SUV rollovers, a process that will take years.
Economics may also trump the automakers’ legal arguments. Last week, Bloomberg, a financial news service, predicted 2006 might be “the year of the compact car in North America.” Because of record gasoline prices, Asian carmakers are counting on American buyers turning to smaller fuel-efficient cars and away from gas-guzzling trucks and sport utility vehicles, according to the news service. As a result of the high prices, cars gained market share against trucks and SUVs for the first time in 25 years.
If the trend holds, foot-dragging federal regulators will be overtaken by consumer demand for smaller, more fuel-efficient, less-polluting cars.