SACRAMENTO, Calif. California sued the federal government on Thursday to force a decision about whether the state can impose the nation's first greenhouse gas emission standards for cars and light trucks.
More than a dozen other states, including Utah, are poised to follow California's lead if it is granted the waiver from federal law, presenting a challenge to automakers who would have to adapt to a patchwork of regulations.
The state's lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., was expected after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vowed last spring to take legal action.
"Our future depends on us taking action on global warming right now," Schwarzenegger said during a Capitol news conference. "There's no legal basis for Washington to stand in our way."
At issue is California's nearly 2-year-old request for a waiver under the federal Clean Air Act allowing it to implement a 2002 state anti-pollution law regulating greenhouse gases.
Eleven other states have adopted California's standard as a way to combat global warming and five others are considering it.
"The longer the delay in reducing these emissions, the more costly and harmful will be the impact on California," the state attorney general's office said in its 16-page complaint.
Schwarzenegger and other state officials say implementing the law is crucial for California's ability to meet the provisions of a separate global warming law that passed last year and generated worldwide attention. That law seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions statewide 25 percent by 2020.
Arizona, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington joined California's lawsuit against the federal government Thursday, said Peter Aseltine, a spokesman for New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram.
"It is time for EPA to either act or get out of the way," Milgram said in a statement.
California asked the EPA to grant its waiver in December 2005. EPA administrator Stephen Johnson said last summer that he would make a decision by the end of this year.
Brown said the EPA simply was not doing its job and should have granted California's waiver request long ago.
"It's sitting on its hands," he said of the agency.
Schwarzenegger sought quicker action and vowed to sue. The state's lawsuit was expected to be filed in late October but was delayed after state officials became preoccupied with the Southern California wildfires.
"The administrator has stated numerous times that he plans to make a decision by the end of the year," EPA spokeswoman Jennifer Wood said in reaction to the lawsuit. "It's unfortunate that California is more interested in getting a good headline than allowing us to make a good decision."
One of the EPA's options is to deny California's request. If it does, state officials said they will continue to press ahead.
"We'll sue again, sue again and sue again until we get it," Schwarzenegger said.
State officials say they need the matter resolved soon because the auto-emissions law applies to vehicles in the 2009 model year, which can be marketed by companies as early as this coming January.
Cars, pickups and sport utility vehicles sold in California account for about 30 percent of the state's total greenhouse gas emissions, according to the lawsuit. They would be required to produce fewer greenhouse gases, with the goal of reducing auto emissions 25 percent by 2030.
Further delay by the EPA would interfere with the state's ability to enforce the law on time, according to the complaint.
"Congress generally intended that the U.S. EPA make determinations of this type in a matter of weeks or months, not years," the complaint says.
Automakers oppose California's effort and are trying to head off a scenario in which emission regulations vary from state to state, complicating their manufacturing. They also argue that it creates a de facto fuel-economy standard, which only the federal government can set.
"The timing of a decision is not what's important," said Michael Stanton, president of The Association of International Automobile Manufacturers. "What's important is getting a national standard."
While the federal government sets national air pollution rules, California has unique status under the Clean Air Act to enact its own regulations if it gets approval to do so by the EPA.
Other states can follow the federal rules or California's standards if they are tougher. The EPA has granted about 50 such waivers over the past 40 years for the use of catalytic converters, leaded gasoline regulations and other measures.
The complaint filed Thursday claims the EPA failed to act in a reasonable length of time on California's latest request for a waiver.
In addition to the states that plan to join California's lawsuit, the governors of Colorado, Florida and Utah also have said their states plan to adopt the standard.
The EPA initially refused to act on California's application, saying the agency did not have the authority to regulate greenhouse gases as a pollutant. That changed when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in April that the EPA did indeed have that right.
As a result, the EPA is now developing greenhouse gas regulations that are scheduled to be released by the end of the year. Environmental groups say those regulations are not likely to be stronger than the California standards.
Meanwhile, automakers continue to challenge the California standards in court.
They are appealing a ruling last month by a federal judge in Vermont who upheld the California rules in that state. They also are trying to persuade a federal judge in Fresno to toss out the emission standards mandated under California's 2002 law.
Associations for both domestic and foreign car companies say California's standards would raise the cost of vehicles and could force manufacturers to pull some sport utility vehicles and pickup truck models from showrooms.
The California lawsuit says automakers can meet the tougher emission standards by improving technology, using alternative fuels, improving vehicle air conditioners and trading clean-air credits among manufacturers.