Dispute over auto emission limits heading for Minnesota

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Minnesota is not yet among a group of states suing the Bush administration for the right to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks. But the state could soon become entangled in the conflict, as lobbyists and lawmakers here prepare to push the same set of rules that ignited the dispute.

The legislation, which originated in California, forces automakers to reduce greenhouse emissions from their vehicles by a fleet average of 30 percent by 2016. California officials say it will accomplish twice the emission reductions as the fuel-efficiency standard passed by Congress in December, which mandates a 35 miles per gallon fleet average by 2020.

California successfully defended the law in a court battle with the auto industry last year, but in December the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent a letter to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger saying that greenhouse gases are “fundamentally global in nature” and thus states do not have authority to regulate them.

California officials snapped back, calling the letter “shocking in its incoherence” and filing a lawsuit against the EPA last week along with 15 other states, most of which have passed or are working to pass identical standards.

State Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, introduced a bill last year that would have Minnesota join those states in adopting California’s vehicle emission standards. In an interview with Minnesota Monitor, he said he plans to back the bill again this year regardless whether the EPA lawsuit is still pending.

Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, is sponsoring a similar bill in the House.

“I believe we should go ahead with it aggressively,” Marty said. “Global warming is the kind of issue you don’t putz around with.”

Ultimately, he said he believes the EPA has little chance of prevailing, and that its denial is only an attempt to delay the inevitable.

“In effect, all it is is George Bush throwing a favor to the auto industry by gumming up the works on cleaning up emissions. It’s just a temporary delay because it will be thrown out in court,” Marty said.

Marty said he’s placed a call to Attorney General Lori Swanson encouraging her office to become involved in the lawsuit. Swanson was among the attorneys general who signed a letter to congressional leaders in November encouraging them not to take away states’ ability to regulate emissions. A spokesperson for her office could not be reached for comment Friday.

Molly Schultz, a lobbyist for the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, a coalition of more than 80 environmental and conservation groups across the state, said the lawsuit adds an interesting component to the debate, but that it won’t stop them from asking the Legislature to pass the bill this year.

“Minnesota has a long tradition of doing things that have been stronger than the federal government on global warming,” Schultz said. “Our hope is that the Legislature doesn’t slow down and wait for the federal government on this.”

Schultz said she doesn’t think it’s unusual that Minnesota wasn’t included in the legal challenge, noting that the state hasn’t passed the legislation and it’s a new development.

“Our hope is that (Swanson) would add Minnesota’s voice to the other states,” Schultz said.

California is central to the case because it is the only state allowed to set its own air pollution regulations. When Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1963, California already had its own laws in place, and so it was given the right to set its own air pollution laws as long as it receives a waiver from the federal government when it deviates. To avoid having 50 different sets of regulations, other states were given the right to choose either California’s law or the federal standards, but they cannot create their own.

As a result, Marty said, there’s little room for debate about the bill’s language. He said he’s considering a provision that would make the law take effect after the states’ lawsuit is resolved.

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