Eighteen states, led by Massachusetts, filed an unusual legal petition in federal court yesterday to pressure the US Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks - a move that could lead the automobile industry to produce cleaner-burning cars.
The filing came on the first anniversary of a landmark US Supreme Court ruling that such greenhouse gases are pollutants, and was designed to highlight the lack of progress since then. It also came in the face of suggestions that the White House is stalling approval of a document that would declare these emissions are harmful to public health.
"Once again the EPA has forced our hand, which has resulted in our taking this extraordinary measure to fight the dangers of climate change," Attorney General Martha Coakley of Massachusetts, which is leading the petition, said in a statement. "The EPA's failure to act in the face of these incontestable dangers is a shameful dereliction of duty."
The justices last year ordered the EPA to formally declare whether carbon dioxide and other global warming gases from motor vehicles could harm human health, and if so, to regulate them under the Clean Air Act. Specifically, yesterday's petition asked the US Court of Appeals in Washington to order the EPA to make that determination within 60 days.
If the states are successful and the agency rules that the gases can harm human health, it could lead to requirements that vehicles emit fewer greenhouse gases. This could be accomplished by requiring new cars to get better gas mileage or encouraging consumers to buy smaller vehicles or hybrid cars.
The states want the federal government to act before President Bush leaves office. Scientific evidence is growing that the manmade release of heat-trapping gases from power plants, vehicles, and factories will lead to public health problems, such as more common heat waves and increased plant pollens that can aggravate allergies and asthma, yet the Bush administration has repeatedly failed to regulate the gases. States and environmental organizations want greenhouse gas emission limits for power plants and factories in addition to vehicles.
Meanwhile, the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, chaired by US Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Malden, last night issued a subpoena to the EPA administrator seeking draft documents prepared by the agency to comply with the Supreme Court ruling.
An investigation by another congressional committee indicated that the federal agency has already determined the gases do pose a danger to human health.
Jonathan Shradar, an EPA spokesman, said the agency is reviewing the states' petition and expects to make a decision on the dangers of greenhouse gas emissions later this spring.
As to the subpoena, he said: "We will review the committee's action and respond appropriately." He pointed out that the agency recently decided to review greenhouse gases in a more "holistic fashion" by looking at all sources - not just motor vehicles.
Attorneys for the states and activists say the EPA has been making such promises for years.
"We've waited almost a decade for the EPA to act on this issue and as much as the administration may think that the problem may simply go away, it won't. And today's action is a step to make sure that it won't," said Joseph Mendelson, legal director for the International Center for Technology Assessment, which brought the first lawsuit about the issue against the EPA in 1999 and was one of about a dozen environmental and advocacy groups and three cities that joined the states in filing the petition yesterday.
The Supreme Court did not set a deadline for the EPA to make its determination, though EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson had set his own timeline for release by the end of 2007.
The states argue that the government has improperly delayed a decision. They cite the findings of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which concluded that the EPA's proposed decision that greenhouse gases threaten health had been sent to the Office of Management and Budget in December 2007. The states' petition contends that the decision is now being held up by the White House budget office.
Pat Parenteau, professor of law at Vermont Law School, said the states' case has a chance of succeeding. "If the petitioners can convince the Court of Appeals that there's some monkey business going on here . . . then I think they get across the goal line," he said.
If the appeals court orders the EPA to determine whether greenhouse gases are a hazard, the agency would still need time to develop, publicize, and finalize regulations for regulating vehicle emissions - a process expected to outlast the Bush administration.
Still, the states and advocates petitioning the court maintained that action should not be postponed for the next administration.
"I want to emphasize: Time is not on our side," said Assistant Attorney General James R. Milkey of Massachusetts. "Every day that goes by without a solution, the window of opportunity to fix the problem closes a little more."