Federal standards for carmakers are lacking, attorney general claims.
Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, escalating California's legal war with the federal government over global warming policies, was in federal court Monday to challenge U.S. auto mileage standards.
Joining other states, cities and environmental groups, California is suing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration saying it violated U.S. environmental laws by making only a "trivial" increase in auto mileage standards for model years 2008 through 2011.
But the federal government contends that the standards it adopted in March 2006 balance demands to protect the environment and combat global warming with "the need to preserve economic stability and consumer choice, while protecting the safety of the driving public."
Moreover, the federal agency said it complied with all environmental laws in calculating the new mileage standards. They call for a jump in fuel-economy to 23 1/2 miles per gallon from 22 1/2 mpg by 2010.
At a news conference outside the court hearing in San Francisco, Brown accused the Bush administration of siding with automakers by approving "dangerously weak" mileage and economy standards for sport utility vehicles, minivans and light trucks.
Brown's comments and the oral arguments in court came on a dramatic day for automakers. DaimlerChrysler, the third-largest company, announced it would sell the bulk of its ailing Chrysler Group to private equity firm Cerberus for $7.4 billion.
Later at the White House, President Bush signed an executive order directing government agencies to begin writing regulations to cut gasoline consumption and the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.
Monday's hearing in San Francisco was before a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. There was no word on when to expect a ruling.
Other parties in California's fuel-efficiency lawsuit include Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont.
The new standards fail to lessen the threat of global warming and do nothing to limit U.S. dependence on oil from producers in the politically unstable nations of the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, Brown said.
"The Bush administration has its head in the sand, and we hope the court wakes them," he added.
Lawyers for the federal government declined to respond directly to Brown's charges.
Brown said the president needed to be firm with the domestic auto industry, instead of making excuses for its failure to make the kind of fuel-efficient cars that can compete with Asian and European models.
"Bush has been trying to protect the automobile companies, and it still hasn't worked. They're losing money, and they are in trouble," he said.
He predicted that U.S. automakers could be forced to seek a financial bailout from the federal government if they continue to make cars that don't appeal to American buyers.
A spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers in Washington, which represents the three largest U.S. automakers, declined to comment on Brown's charges of the fuel-economy lawsuit.
Brown's suit over mileage standards, filed by his predecessor in November, is one of two dealing with climate change. Another measure, filed last year by then-Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, seeks damages from automakers for the alleged effects of global warming, including drought, melting snowpacks and rising ocean levels.
Automakers, meanwhile, are suing California in U.S. District Court in Fresno, arguing that the state has no authority under a 2002 law to regulate auto tailpipe emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.