California's Clean Cars Program Under Attack

Federal Government Should Side with California, Instead of Detroit, says NRDC

Statement by Ann Notthoff, NRDC California Advocacy Director

SAN FRANCISCO (February 13, 2003) -- The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco heard oral arguments today in a case pitting Detroit automakers and the Bush administration against California's Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) program. The auto industry's legal challenge is the latest chapter in a sordid story of resistance to California's clean air rules, according to NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). The group said the federal government's siding with Detroit is an unprecedented attack on California's legal right to regulate air pollution.

"Everyone who breathes the air should care about what's happening today in the San Francisco federal appeals court," said NRDC California advocacy director, Ann Notthoff. "It's no surprise that auto makers would resist our efforts to clean up tailpipe pollution. After all, that's been their pattern for more than 30 years.

"But we are appalled that the White House is walking away from the federal government's longstanding recognition that California has the right to find special solutions to solve our special air pollution problems. The federal Clean Air Act specifically authorizes California to set its own clean air standards.

"One week ago, President Bush touted his plan to build the advanced technology clean cars of the future. Now the Department of Justice is going to court to fight the only program in the country that actually requires auto makers to build them. If the administration were serious about building better, cleaner cars, it would be siding with California instead of Detroit.

"Ironically, Detroit and Washington are attacking the very provisions of the ZEV rule that are designed to give the auto makers more flexibility at a lower cost. The ZEV amendments under attack would give the auto makers partial credit for building gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles. These are cars that are becoming increasingly popular on our roads, such as the Toyota Prius and new Honda Civic. In fact, the ZEV program has helped to drive the development of these and other advanced clean car technologies.

"California has long been recognized as the global leader in vehicle pollution solutions. We need to build on this success with the ZEV and other programs to protect air quality and public health."


The Basics

  • The U.S. Justice Department filed an amicus brief supporting GM, DaimlerChrysler and several dealers in their federal lawsuit attacking the Zero Emission Vehicles (ZEV) program.

  • It is the first time we know of that the federal government has tried to interfere with California's long-standing right -- recognized under the Clean Air Act -- to determine the vehicle pollution standards necessary to protect its air quality and the health of its people.

  • California has long been recognized as the global leader in vehicle pollution solutions; many of California's innovations have been adopted at the federal level and elsewhere.

  • Moreover, the plaintiffs are attacking the very provisions of the rule that are designed to provide auto makers with more flexibility and lower cost compliance options. These options would create a more flexible advanced technology clean vehicle program to encourage the commercialization of Zero Emission Vehicles.

  • At issue are 2001 amendments to the 1990 ZEV rule that give automakers greater flexibility to comply with the law and that encourage a broader array of advanced clean vehicle technologies, including gasoline electric hybrids.

  • NRDC and a coalition of other groups have filed friend of the court briefs on the side of the defendant, the state of California. We think the automakers' lawsuit has no merit because the ZEV program is intended to reduce air pollution from motor vehicles, NOT regulate fuel economy.

Advanced Technology Vehicles, Not Golf Carts
  • This is NOT about electric cars. Indeed the ZEV provisions being attacked are designed specifically to encourage broader, more flexible options, including hybrids and fuel cells.

  • The ZEV effort has played a major role in driving successful new technologies like hybrids and fuel cell vehicles.

  • The amendments targeted by the automakers will build and broaden the success of the program.

  • This IS about choice. Californians have a legal right to protect our air quality and our environment; car companies are trying to take that right away.

  • Clean vehicles are a key part of the state strategy to clean up our air.

ZEV History

  • In 1990 the California Air Resources Board (CARB) issued a mandate requiring that zero-emission vehicles make up at least 2 percent of new car sales by 1998, 5 percent by 2001 and 10 percent by 2003.

  • CARB eliminated the ramp-up targets in 1996, leaving the 10 percent requirement in place for 2003.

  • The rule was modified again in 1999 and 2001 to allow partial credits for extremely clean vehicles known as "advanced technology partial ZEVs" (PZEVs). These include the increasingly popular gasoline-electric hybrids -- like Toyota Prius and Honda Insight -- that are hitting the road in increasing numbers.

Lawsuit History

  • January 2002 -- General Motors, DaimlerChrysler and several California car dealers filed a federal lawsuit against the California Air Resources Board (CARB) in the Eastern District of California alleging the new ZEV rules violate a federal law barring states from regulating fuel economy in any way. The case is Central Valley Chrysler v. Kenny (#02-16395).

  • June 11, 2002 -- The judge in the ZEV lawsuit granted the plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction asking that CARB be prevented from enforcing the 2001 ZEV regulations for model years 2003 and 2004. The judge agreed with the plaintiffs that, while there are other compliance options available, those options are not viable alternatives. The judge also looked at whether the plaintiffs would suffer irreparable harm from enforcement of the 2001 ZEV regulations. In its opposition to the injunction, CARB argued that the plaintiffs would not suffer harm from the 2001 regulations because the 1999 ZEV program was more stringent. CARB pointed out that the 2001 ZEV regulations eased the economic impact of the 1999 ZEV requirements.

  • August 27, 2002 -- NRDC and other environmental and public interest groups filed an amicus brief on behalf of California in the state's appeal of the preliminary injunction to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. They argued that while Congress intended to preempt states from establishing their own fuel economy standards, it had no intention of preempting California from implementing automobile pollution regulations. They argued, moreover, that the ZEV program has no effect on fleetwide fuel economy.

  • October 9, 2002 -- In an unprecedented move, the federal government filed an amicus brief on behalf of the plaintiff automakers.

  • February 13, 2003 -- The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments in the ZEV case. Click here for the court docket.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 550,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.