Automakers Drop Challenge to California Zero Emission Rules

Published October 1, 2003

Recent changes in California’s Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) program have induced General Motors, DaimlerChrysler, and other automakers to drop a federal lawsuit challenging the program. The automakers announced their decision on August 12.

According to the California Air Resources Board (CARB), automakers will no longer be required to produce a fleet of unpopular, low-horsepower battery-powered cars for Californians. In 1990, automakers were informed that by this year 10 percent of the cars they sold in California had to be battery-powered and completely emissions-free. In 2001, CARB announced automakers could count gasoline-battery hybrids toward the requirement, but few consumers have chosen to purchase even these vehicles. CARB has since lowered the ZEV quotas from 10 percent to 1 percent.

Last year, a federal district court sided with automakers and issued a preliminary injunction against California’s enforcement of the ZEV program. The court found the program, as an attempt to regulate fuel economy, unlawfully intruded upon a matter of federal policy. California’s appeal of the decision was under review by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals before the automakers dropped their suit.

Willing to Compromise

Under CARB’s most recent ZEV revisions, auto manufacturers must produce at least 250 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, tens of thousands of gasoline-battery hybrids, and hundreds of thousands of ultra-low emission cars by 2008. Quotas will rise over time.

“The new rules provide much more flexibility for manufacturers to use various technologies” to meet the ZEV requirements, said General Motors spokesperson David Barthmuss. “We basically can live with them.”

“We don’t agree with the concept of mandated approaches in automotive technology,” added Barthmuss. “But we do agree that the modified 2003 zero-emission vehicle regulation may provide the flexibility that we need and were looking for.”

CARB had decided in July to expand its credit system to include a wider variety of hybrids that produce few emissions. That concession played an important role in the automakers’ decision to drop their suit. “One thing we’ve been working hard on is getting credit for all the things we do,” explained Elizabeth Lowery, General Motors’ vice president for the environment and energy.

General Motors has produced numerous prototypes of low-emission vehicles, including a gasoline-battery hybrid Saturn Vue sport utility vehicle, scheduled for the 2005 model year. The key test of the vehicles’ viability will take place in the marketplace, as consumers decide whether to buy them.

The auto manufacturers’ move was met with skepticism by environmental activist groups who have supported the ZEV program.

“The fact that they’re backing away on the lawsuit, I think it’s optimistic to say that they’re embracing a robust environmental stance,” said Jim Kliesch, a research associate for the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.

CARB Chairman Alan Lloyd was more optimistic. “Given the fact that General Motors and DaimlerChrysler, the companies with the most concern about the regulation, have come to agreement, I’m hoping it spells a new era of working more effectively together,” he said.

The automakers continue to contemplate a challenge to California’s greenhouse gas program, enacted in 2002 as the nation’s first law limiting carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles. Like the ZEV program, the greenhouse gas law raises concerns over state intrusion into matters reserved for federal policymakers.

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].