By Louis Porter, Vermont Press Bureau
MONTPELIER - A federal judge in Burlington earlier this year vaulted Vermont to the front lines in the battle by states to fight global warming with rules limiting how much carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse gases" can be produced by cars sold within their borders.
But Wednesday the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency pulled the emergency brake on Vermont and other states' efforts to implement tough California emission standards, declining to grant a waiver for the states' emission rules.
Thursday, officials in the Green Mountains from Gov. James Douglas to environmental leaders were angry - and vowing to continue their journey.
"I am very disappointed in the decision of the Environmental Protection Agency," said Douglas, whose administration decided that Vermont should join California - and put it on the road to being the first state in the nation to successfully defend the tougher standards in court. "I expected and anticipated the EPA would grant the waiver."
Congressional Democrats are not letting the decision go unchallenged. Thursday they announced they will start an investigation of the EPA's refusal to let California implement its tailpipe emissions law, the first step in what will likely be a fierce legal and political battle.
EPA chief Stephen Johnson said in a statement the passage of a new energy bill this week that includes updated national automobile efficiency standards rendered unnecessary "a confusing patchwork of state rules," a phrase borrowed from opponents of the California emissions standards.
Douglas said the state is reviewing how to overcome the EPA's refusal. Vermont's Attorney General William Sorrell said the state will likely fight the EPA decisions in federal appeals court in the District of Columbia.
"The likelihood we will appeal is very high. This is far from the end of this fight," Sorrell said.
Sorrell's office and the Douglas administration have been frequent litigants against the federal government, especially over environmental issues.
At the same time Douglas, a Republican who worked on the president's re-election campaign, is often reluctant to launch verbal attacks against decisions made under Bush's leadership.
But, Thursday Douglas said that given press accounts about the ruling it does appear the EPA decision had a political origin.
"I think it is not unreasonable to think there was some political influence," Douglas said.
"We can be proud Vermont was the first state in the Northeast to adopt this more rigorous standard" and defend them in court, Douglas said.
"I think the EPA is out of touch with the mainstream of the American people. I don't understand it," Douglas added. "Why not allow states to continue to adopt more rigorous standards if they want to."
The reason is that previously when states set controls they were on pollutants that primarily affect local air quality, Johnson said in a statement. "Greenhouse gases are fundamentally global in nature," according to the statement.
And the new federal efficiency standards - signed into law by the president - make the state rules unnecessary, according to the EPA.
In a press conference Thursday, Bush backed up the EPA decision.
"The question is how to have an effective strategy. Is it more effective to let each state make a decision as to how to proceed in curbing greenhouse gases? Or is it more effective to have a national strategy?" the president said, according to transcripts. "Director Johnson made a decision based upon the fact that we passed a piece of legislation that enables us to have a national strategy."
But those new federal standards are weaker than the emissions standards California set and don't go into effect for more than a decade, supporters of the state standards said.
"This is a real indication of the desperate acts of the waning days of this administration," said Christopher Kilian, head of the Conservation Law Foundation's Vermont operation. The group has been one of the environmental organizations that joined Vermont and other states in defending the standards.
Because Vermont and the 15 other states took California's standards wholesale there will not be a patchwork of regulations if they are allowed to stand, but instead two standards, the federal one and California's, Kilian said.
"The market will not be a confusing patchwork. In fact over time it is likely the auto industry will manufacture one set of vehicles they will sell throughout the nation that meets the California regulations," Kilian said.
That may still come to pass, he said.
"The team of lawyers and scientists from state agencies and environmental organizations that have been working on this together across the country will continue to work together. Vermont is and remains a major part of that team," Kilian said.
Indeed the appeal of the decision in the Vermont case by the car makers - now in the Federal Second Circuit Court in New York City - will likely move ahead just as the appeal of the EPA case by states does, Sorrell said.
"I will be surprised if that case doesn't continue on course," he said.
Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers President Dave McCurdy said in a statement the new federal efficiency standards signed into law this week were protected by the EPA ruling blocking states from moving forward with their own.
"Under the new national fuel economy law, automakers will make dramatic, 30 percent reduction in carbon dioxide," he said.
But Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said it is "truly hypocritical" of the Bush administration to first fight, then take credit for, the new national rules while blocking states from making their own standards.
"The administration's own legal and scientific staff said the states have the legal authority to adopt stricter environmental rules," he said. The year 2020, when the new federal standards go into effect, is not soon enough, he said.
"Vermont and California are saying, 'Why wait?" Leahy said. "If the federal government is going to drag its heels it may be states that have to take steps. The courts have agreed with the states."
If federal legislative action is needed to allow states the authority, "I will do that," Leahy said.
"The Bush administration must stop siding with polluters and at least get out of the way of states that want to help the environment," Independent Sen. Bernard Sanders said in a statement.
U.S. Rep. Peter Welch said he would join California's U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman in investigating the EPA decision.
"If the White House will not take aggressive measures, the least it can do is get out of the states' way," Welch said in a statement.
Even if neither a legal appeal nor legislative action allows Vermont to set its own standard there is still the likelihood of a new federal administration on the horizon, Sorrell said.
"Roughly a year from now we are going to have another president," he said.
By Louis Porter, Vermont Press Bureau
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