Blocked repeatedly in the nation's capital, environmental groups are taking their fight for improved vehicle fuel economy to the states.
The groups know federal law prohibits states from regulating fuel economy. Instead, they call their effort a campaign for cleaner vehicles-and they claim the strategy is working.
The campaign is a growing challenge to auto makers, whose lobbying strength is concentrated in the nation's capital.
``We're going to attempt to be as successful out in the states as we've been here in Washington,'' said Fred Webber, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM). The alliance represents the Big 3 and six import-brand auto makers.
The environmental groups' state-by-state strategy includes these elements:
* Persuade states to adopt California-style clean air rules, even though those rules arguably do little more to reduce tailpipe pollution than the latest federal clean air regulations do.
* Urge courts to uphold California's attempt to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from vehicles. The main target of that effort is carbon dioxide, a byproduct of burning fuel but also a natural part of the atmosphere. A buildup of carbon dioxide may be trapping heat and warming the planet.
* Encourage states that use California's clean air rules also to enact its greenhouse-gas rules, which require reduced fuel consumption.
* Anticipate that when enough states have greenhouse-gas rules, a tipping point will be reached. Auto makers then will have to improve the fuel economy of the vehicles they sell everywhere, environmental activists say.
Upping the count
``Auto makers will find it financially impossible to make one clean set of cars for nine states and Canada and a dirty set for the rest,'' said Dan Becker, director of global warming for the Sierra Club in Washington.
Mr. Becker is an architect of the state strategy. He counts Washington state as the ninth to adopt California's clean air rules.
But House and Senate members in the Washington state legislature have approved different versions of clean air legislation. The version that is expected to become law would make Washington's adoption of the rules depend on what neighboring Oregon does. Oregon is studying the issue.
Mr. Becker's analysis also assumes that a new voluntary agreement between the government of Canada and auto makers, which aims to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, will lead to big improvements in fuel economy as well. That has yet to be shown.
The auto alliance's Mr. Webber predicts the environmental groups' strategy will fail. He said he is confident an alliance lawsuit will overturn California's greenhouse-gas rules. The alliance calls those rules an illegal attempt to regulate fuel economy.
Even if the rules survive, Mr. Webber argues, other states will realize their benefits do not justify the costs.
California's rules would require auto makers to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from their vehicles by 30 percent before 2016. Regulators estimate that compliance with the rules would increase the cost of a new vehicle by an average of $1,000.
But auto makers say the changes will cost $3,000 per vehicle. And the rules will have little or no effect on the global climate, they argue.
The alliance has hired lobbying firms in 46 state capitals to represent auto makers. The industry dispatches key staff members when crucial votes approach. Car dealers also have powerful lobbies in nearly all states.
Still, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont and Maine have adopted California's clean air rules.
What environmental groups call the Bush administration's failure to combat global warming is an impetus for the state-by-state strategy. Congress also has voted repeatedly to oppose tougher fuel economy standards.
But Mr. Becker said the state plan originated during Bill Clinton's presidency. Other than helping negotiate the Kyoto treaty on global warming, Mr. Becker said the Clinton administration did little to improve vehicle fuel economy or curb greenhouse-gas emissions.
Meanwhile, the Automotive Service Association (ASA) has asked independent repair shops to oppose a measure that would change Washington state's vehicle emission standards.
With the proposed standards, the ASA said, 57 percent of vehicles could have a 15-year, 150,000-mile warranty by 2010.
``Independent shops will virtually be excluded from the repair process,'' said Bob Redding, ASA's Washington representative. ``Independent auto repair shops, at present, perform approximately 75 percent of all non-warranty repairs in Washington. Increasing the impact even more, the legislation eliminates emission inspection and maintenance programs beginning in 2009.''
The ASA has encouraged repairers in the state to contact their representatives about the measures, Senate Bill 5397 and House Bill 1397.