Why the automaker lawsuit? Why Fresno?

There was no surprise when the world’s automakers sued in
federal court to block this state’s new vehicle emission standards,
adopted by state smog fighters in September after the Legislature
mandated such rules a year earlier.
There was no surprise when the world’s automakers sued in federal court to block this state’s new vehicle emission standards, adopted by state smog fighters in September after the Legislature mandated such rules a year earlier.

After all, the car manufacturers had maintained they could not and would not comply from the moment Democratic Assemblywoman Fran Pavley of Agoura Hills introduced her bill requiring new rules to cut greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent by the year 2016.

But the automakers’ lawsuit puts a new twist on their decades-old resistance to anything that cuts air pollution.

From the beginning, when California required the first primitive smog control devices, the carmakers have argued that each improved device would add prohibitive costs to new cars and that those costs would interfere with interstate commerce – something individual states may not do.

But that’s not their claim this time. Why not? Companies like DaimlerChrysler, General Motors, Ford, Toyota, BMW, Mazda, Volkswagen and Mitsubishi can plainly see that smog controls have not made new car purchases impossible. The roads are full of their latest models.

So now they’re claiming the state’s restrictions on greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, methane and hydrofluorocarbons would force them to build more fuel-efficient cars and amount to an end run around federal laws that prohibit states from regulating gas mileage.

It’s true, of course, that the new law would force changes on the carmakers, just like earlier laws that produced catalytic converters, hybrid cars and electric vehicles.

They are likely correct when they say that to comply with the new rules, they would have to use more efficient air conditioners and transmissions, plus build smaller engines into their cars.

What’s wrong with that? Little, for consumers. Plenty, for automakers who would have to retool assembly lines. And they would not have to retool merely to do business in California. States like New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont and Rhode Island all are moving toward emulating the new California standards.

They’ve always adopted California’s rules in the past, but about three to five years after those rules proved workable here.

The manufacturers also whine that if they are forced to cut greenhouses gases, they might have to give up sales of large and inefficient cars and trucks which emit more such gases than smaller models.

That would really hurt their bottom lines, they fear, because larger cars and trucks, especially sport utility vehicles, are their most profitable products.

And so they sue on grounds that California has no right to adopt any rule that would increase gas mileage, claiming that is the exclusive realm of Congress and the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Of course, the EPA has never pressured carmakers into anything; its budget is subject to the whims of congressional budget makers who hail from automaking states like Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee.

It’s possible the new lawsuit will produce some similar compromise that saves automakers money while helping clean the air a bit.

But perhaps the automakers would be wiser to invest in new technology to produce cleaner cars rather than in lawsuits designed to perpetuate dirty ones. That would boost both for their public image and the public health.

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