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Published: Friday, 12/1/2006

Troubled automakers keep eye on court's EPA ruling

DETROIT - Detroit's automakers are scrambling to reinvent themselves and come up with turnaround plans that will stop the financial bleeding that has cost them billions in recent years.

And now they have another worry. Does the federal Clean Air Act really require the air to be clean? Does the Environmental Protection Agency really have to protect the environment?

Specifically, that is, does the EPA have to regulate greenhouse gases, the carbon dioxide emissions that motor vehicles produce and which most scientists say directly cause global warming?

That decision is now in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court, which this week heard arguments in Massachusetts vs. EPA, a landmark environmental case filed by a dozen states, three cities, and a number of health and environmental groups.

Specifically, the court is being asked to settle two questions: Does the EPA have the authority to regulate carbon dioxide as a substance that pollutes the air? And if so - can the EPA legally decline to exercise that authority?

Noah Hall, a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, calls this a tough case, and a highly important one. Like most people outside the Bush Administration, he sees global warming, or climate change, as an incredibly important issue.

"There is a lot of justification for requiring the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases," said the professor, who specializes in environmental law. Not to mention justification for ruling that the 1971 federal Clean Air Act was designed to make sure the air is, in fact, clean.

That's not, however, the position of the Bush Administration, and legal scholars say there are plenty of arguments on the other side.

Edward Warren, an environmental lawyer who frequently argues before the high court, told the Voice of America "the practice for 35 years has been never to consider carbon dioxide emissions to be a pollutant."

Nor, he argues, should it matter that the greenhouse gases have pushed the atmosphere out of compliance with the air quality standards outlined in the Clean Air Act.

"Those standards make no sense for a worldwide pollutant issue," he argued, perhaps less convincingly.

The auto companies are not part of the lawsuit, but plainly do not want to be slapped with tougher emissions standards.

However, even a victory for the environmentalists would probably not require emissions policies to be changed overnight, since it would take some time to sort things out and set new standards.

Professor Hall, like many other observers, guesses that the increasingly conservative Roberts Court will rule against Massachusetts, and defer air quality decisions to the federal EPA. But even if so - and the Supreme Court can often surprise the experts - he still thinks climate policy change is on the way.

"I think the federal government will take some steps to address greenhouse gas emissions in the next few years; there is the political will in Congress to do so now."

The ideal solution, he believes, would be a new federal act to focus on greenhouse gases. That will be coming, he is convinced, now that the Democrats control both houses of Congress.

A bigger question may be whether any such bill would be signed by this President, a man who has stubbornly resisted acknowledging climate change.

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Worth Thinking About? Former Gov. John Engler was Michigan's most formidable politician in the 1990s, when he won three terms and wielded more power than perhaps any executive in the state's history. Currently, he's head of the Washington-based National Association of Manufacturers.

Last week he dropped in to meet with the steering committee of the Center for Michigan, a new moderate think and do tank in Ann Arbor dedicated to seeking common-sense solutions for Michigan problems. (I am an unpaid member.)

What would Mr. Engler, a conservative Republican suggest be done about Detroit and its many problems? "If (Dick) DeVos had won, I would have suggested the legislature take away power from the city council and the school board and put both under Kwame (Kilpatrick)," giving the mayor sort of dictatorial powers.

His reasoning? Both bodies are essentially financially bankrupt, and have a long tradition of ineffective leadership.

"So you put them under the one guy who clearly got elected and has three years left on his term, and maybe he could do something," the former governor said, adding "but I don't think you'll ever see that with this governor," Democrat Jennifer Granholm.

Whatever your politics, that's one prediction you can safely take to the bank.



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