Emission standards prompt lawsuit

Staff and wire reports

SANTA FE — A group of Democratic legislators, car dealers and a Curry County farmer filed a lawsuit in state district court Tuesday in Las Cruces challenging the state’s power to adopt more stringent vehicle emissions standards for new cars, light trucks and sport utility vehicles.

The standards mandate cleaner-burning cars and trucks to help fight global warming.

The New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board and the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Air Quality Control Board adopted the standards shortly before midnight Tuesday, rushing to meet a deadline for the regulations to take effect next year.

The emission requirements will apply starting with 2011 model cars, which become available to consumers in 2010.

However, it’s uncertain when — or if — New Mexico and other states will be able to implement the tougher emissions mandate because of federal regulatory hurdles and legal challenges.

Curry County farmer Scott Pipkin joined four Democratic lawmakers — Sen. John Arthur Smith of Deming, Sen. Timothy Jennings of Roswell, Rep. George Hanosch of Grants and Rep. Jim Trujillo of Santa Fe in the lawsuit along with four car dealers from Clovis, Alamogordo and Las Cruces.

Pipkin said such disparities in emission standards could adversely affect businesses in the outlying areas of New Mexico, like Clovis, because it would no longer allow New Mexico dealerships to acquire requested vehicles from partner dealerships in Texas.

In addition, Pipkin said farmers often rely on pickup trucks and other large vehicles, which could be affected by emission standard changes.

They filed the lawsuit on Tuesday and initially asked a judge to stop the Environmental Improvement Board from adopting the emissions standards until the legal challenge was resolved.

Under the federal Clean Air Act, states can use either federally mandated standards or California’s rules.

California adopted its standards in 2004 in response to a law enacted two years earlier to regulate automobile emissions to lower greenhouse gases. However, the standards are on hold — along with plans by New Mexico and other states to use the same emission requirements — while California waits for a federal waiver from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Automakers have filed a lawsuit challenging the California emissions requirements. They contend the standards in effect are a mandate for higher fuel economy and only the federal government can set those for vehicles.

Pipkin has a similar fear regarding the move by Gov. Bill Richardson. He fears Richardson is using the legislation to bolster his presidential campaign but is endangering the state by not going through the proper channels.

“It sounds to me like he’s trying to ram the thing through,” Pipkin said. “There’s a way to get laws imposed. He’s not trying to go through the Legislature.”

California and other states, including New Mexico, have sued the EPA to force the federal agency to decide whether to allow California to move ahead with its emission requirements.

Supporters of the tougher standards say they will lower emissions of greenhouse gas, including carbon dioxide, as well as force the manufacture of vehicles with improved fuel economy and the use of new technologies to produce “zero emission vehicles.”

Richardson, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, directed the Environmental Improvement Board to adopt the California emissions standards. The governor appoints board members.

The standards will apply to new vehicles sold in New Mexico — not used cars or new cars before the 2011 model year.

At issue in the lawsuit is a legal question about the powers of the legislative and executive branches of government and whether “the executive branch can simply bypass the Legislature and do all of this by decree,” said Marshall.

The lawsuit contends that a state law prevents the board from adopting air quality regulations more stringent than federal air quality requirements.

Environment Secretary Ron Curry took issue with the lawsuit and maintained that New Mexico had authority to adopt the California emission standards under provisions of state and federal air quality laws.

According to the lawsuit, the emissions standards will not be enforceable in New Mexico without a change in state law. California prohibits consumers from importing new cars from other states that don’t meet the tougher emissions requirements, the lawsuit said, unless it’s a vehicle that has been driven at least 7,500 miles. New Mexico doesn’t have a similar law, however.