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Court tosses federal fuel standards

The Bush administration must write tougher fuel economy regulations for sport utility vehicles, minivans and pickup trucks that take into account greenhouse gas pollution, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.

The decision by judges of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals targeted a loophole that lets the top-selling vehicles, including Chevrolet Tahoe and Ford Expedition, get fewer miles per gallon of fuel than passenger cars do.

It was the third ruling this year by a federal court to bolster contentions from state governments and environmental groups that the president and federal regulators haven’t been doing enough to battle climate change.

The lawsuit was brought by 10 states and the cities of New York and Washington, D.C., against the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the agency charged with setting vehicle mileage requirements. The complaint challenged “as trivial” an increase in light truck mileage announced in March 2006.

“This is a stunning rebuke to the Bush administration and its failed energy policy and hopefully will send a message that we need to continue now to take strong action against dangerous foreign oil dependence and against global warming,” California Attorney General Jerry Brown said.

The decision, if it stands, also “will mean savings for every car driver in America” because they’ll be able to drive farther on a gallon of gasoline, Brown said.

He predicted that the decisions this year by the U.S. Supreme Court, a U.S. District Court judge in Vermont and the Court of Appeals in San Francisco would send a signal to Congress to set stricter mileage standards on all U.S. passenger cars and light trucks. In June, the Senate approved a bill to raise average mileage for all vehicles to 35 mpg by 2020. The measure is before the House of Representatives.

Automakers, in a statement responding to the appeals court ruling, said they “support aggressive fuel economy increases” between now and 2022. But the president of the Alliance of American Automobile Manufacturers, Dave McCurdy, urged federal officials not to change current fuel economy standards for SUVs, minivans and light trucks to be built during the 2008 to 2011 model years.

“Any further changes to the program would only delay the progress that manufacturers have made toward increasing fleet-wide fuel economy,” McCurdy said.

A spokesman for the Bush administration, Charles Miller of the Department of Justice, declined to comment on the decision, other than to say that his agency was reviewing the decision and discussing options.

If no appeal is forthcoming, the NHTSA would be forced to scrap a current fuel economy standard that was set to rise to 23.5 miles per gallon in 2010 from 22.2 mpg.

New standards would need to be written that provide “the maximum feasible” fuel savings, the appeals court said. The agency also would be required to reconsider a decision to put fuel economy requirements on heavy pickup trucks, weighing 8,500 to 10,000 pounds.

In their ruling, the appeals court judges noted that federal regulators didn’t present a convincing case for putting SUVs and other light trucks in a different category from passenger cars when setting fuel economy standards.

“NHTSA’s decision runs counter to the evidence showing that SUVs, vans and pickup trucks are manufactured primarily for the purpose of transporting passengers and are generally not used for off-highway operation,” they said.

Under current regulations, passenger cars are required to get about five more miles per gallon than SUVs and light trucks.

The ruling by the appeals court justices in San Francisco is philosophically in line with a January decision by the Supreme Court that carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming can be regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Air Act.