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U.S. automakers could see national CO2 standard

BOSTON (Reuters) - The U.S. auto industry can expect stronger regulations on carbon dioxide emissions, but experts said carmakers may be spared from having to adapt to a patchwork of varying state standards, following a Supreme Court decision, experts said on Tuesday.

The nation’s highest court ruled on Monday that the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions that spur global warming.

Under President George W. Bush, the Environmental Protection Agency in 2003 refused to regulate emissions from new cars and trucks, saying it lacked the authority. The Supreme Court on Monday told the EPA to reconsider.

In the absence of strict national regulation, some states have taken matters into their own hands. Most notably, California, which already had the country’s strictest emissions standards, in September sued six major U.S. automakers, seeking to recoup billions of dollars in damages the state contended were due to vehicle emissions.

“This is probably a benefit to the auto industry such that they will have one set of guidelines to follow,” said Norman Spindel, an attorney at Roseland, New Jersey law firm Lowenstein Sandler, who early in his career worked as an EPA attorney. “I also think it will quiet or possibly eliminate the adoption of programs on a state-by-state or regional basis.”

NATIONAL STANDARD

Some automakers welcomed the idea of a national standard on the emission of carbon dioxide, often called by its chemical shorthand CO2.

"The state-by-state approach is problematic, not only because it makes manufacturing more complicated, but because it is not as effective as a national standard," said Edward Cohen, vice president of government and industry relations at the North American arm of Japan's Honda Motor Co. Ltd. 7267.T

Honda on Tuesday topped a Union of Concerned Scientists ranking of the nation's automakers whose fleets had the lowest emissions. Toyota Motor Corp. 7203.T, maker of the iconic Prius gasoline-electric hybrid, ranked second.

Automakers, particularly in Asia, have embraced the hybrid engine as a way of improving fuel economy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. U.S. automakers’ continued reliance on light trucks and sport-utility vehicles, which use more fuel, has been cited as one reason for their weak financial performance.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents Detroit's Big Three automakers -- Ford Motor Co. F.N, General Motors Corp. GM.N and the U.S. arm of DaimlerChrysler AG DCXGn.DE -- as well as their foreign brethren operating in the United States, also said it welcomed the idea of a national standard.

“There needs to be a national, federal, economy-wide approach to addressing greenhouse gases,” said Dave McCurdy, president and chief executive of the Alliance, in a statement.

Carbon dioxide is one of the most common greenhouse gases, which trap the sun’s heat close to the Earth’s surface and are believed to have contributed to a documented rise in the planet’s temperatures. That warming, in turn, can lead to droughts, storms and other violent weather patterns.

Environmental advocates said that if the EPA takes up the issue of autos’ CO2 emissions at the national level, they hope the federal government will adopt a strict enough standard to make a difference in global warming. President Bush has opposed mandatory controls on greenhouse gas emissions as harmful to the U.S. economy.

“I understand from the perspective of the industry that they don’t want to deal with 50 different standards,” said David Hamilton, director of global warming and energy programs at the Sierra Club, an environmental lobbying group. “But with that comes the requirement that the national standard be sufficient to do the job that we’re trying to get done.”

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