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Minnesota lawmakers consider California-style emission standards

Truck-loving Minnesota would adopt California's tough, state-imposed vehicle emissions law under a bill advancing in the Legislature. Supporters say the bill goes beyond recent federal car-mileage regulations and would save Minnesotans millions o...

Truck-loving Minnesota would adopt California's tough, state-imposed vehicle emissions law under a bill advancing in the Legislature.

Supporters say the bill goes beyond recent federal car-mileage regulations and would save Minnesotans millions of dollars at the gas pump, reduce energy use and cut the carbon emissions that many scientists say are a cause of global climate change.

Opponents say the rule will restrict consumer choices in the showroom and could reduce the number of powerful SUVs and pickup trucks that some Minnesotans need to haul equipment, boats and big families. They've battled back with an advertising campaign called "DontTakeMyTruck.com,'' appealing to Northland residents who don't want to lose their F-150 or Suburban.

The bill has a key hearing in a House of Representatives committee today.

State vs. federal

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In December, President Bush signed a law that requires automakers to increase their fleet's average mileage to 35 miles per gallon by 2012. But environmental groups and others say California has an even better plan to improve mileage, save consumers more money at the pump and better reduce greenhouse gasses.

That new rule would apply to cars, SUVs and light trucks, and it already has been adopted by 12 other states.

The California plan limits emissions but also could push average mileage to 40 mpg by 2020, supporters say, and nearly double the reduction of climate-affecting carbon dioxide compared to the federal law. Supporters say the plan would cut Minnesota vehicle carbon emissions by 30 percent.

Changes would begin with the 2012 model year.

Supporters say automakers probably will abide by the tougher state-imposed rule because so many states already have adopted it -- including Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. 

Other states -- Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Montana, and Utah -- are considering the move. 

Sponsors of the legislation also note that the new law would not apply to used vehicles or new boats, ATVs, snowmobiles, logging equipment or farm machinery.

While opponents say the measure could add $1,000 to the cost of a new vehicle, supports say lower gas bills will make that up in about two years. Vehicle owners would save money after that, they say.

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The bill had been opposed in Minnesota by farmers' groups and the ethanol industry. But some of those objections were dropped last week after amendments were added assuring corn-growers and processors that the standard allows for high use of ethanol to meet emissions reductions. The Minnesota Farmers Union now supports the bill.

That leaves U.S. automakers and some auto dealers as primary opponents.

Losing choice?

"We think the environmentalists are trying to take Minnesotans out of their trucks ... and hockey moms out of their minivans,'' said Scott Lambert, executive vice president of the Minnesota Auto Dealers Association.

Lambert said the California plan is designed for a state that sells more cars than trucks. Minnesotans buy more trucks and SUVs than cars. Pickups, SUVs and minivans would fall into low supply if the law passes, Lambert predicts.

Lambert said skyrocketing gas prices already are pushing consumers to high-mileage, low-emissions vehicles.

"There's no perceptible environmental benefit for Minnesota over the existing federal law... And we lose consumer choice,'' Lambert said. "We also think it's going to reduce ethanol sales in Minnesota. The standards have a bias against E-85.''

But supporters such as Jim Erkel, transportation program director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, said the Minnesota law won't take away any new truck choices.

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The law prohibits regulators from mandating any mileage requirement and from excluding any specific make, model or type of vehicle -- so big trucks would be available.

Vehicles that do better than the California emission standards will be used by automakers to offset vehicles that don't measure up, Erkel said, noting that the law applies to a fleet-wide average. Credits are offered to manufacturers who meet standards early.

"When they (opponents) say 'trucks' they want you to think F-350," Erkel said. "But the federal definition also includes PT Cruisers and Dodge Grand Caravans.  As I drive around Minnesota, I haven't seen a single PT Cruiser pulling a manure spreader or a Dodge Grand Caravan hauling aspen (logs) to the mill."

The rule has separate requirements for small cars and small trucks up to 3,750 pounds and larger trucks and SUVs. Vehicles heavier than 8,500 pounds are not covered.

As of now, California's plan is officially on hold because the federal Environmental Protection Agency has blocked it. California and 16 other states (including Minnesota) have sued the EPA, however, and could regain the authority to set the tougher standards by 2009.

All three major presidential candidates support allowing states to adopt the California plan.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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