SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) – California scored a major victory Wednesday in its bid to be a player in the fight against global warming, as a federal judge ruled that the state has the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from cars.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Anthony Ishii in Fresno was another in a series of losses this year for automakers, who have sought to block California’s clean car mandates from taking effect here and in 16 other states that together make up nearly half the U.S. population.

The win for environmentalists is tempered by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, however, which has yet to grant California’s two-year-old request for a waiver, the last roadblock to the new rules. Ishii’s ruling puts more pressure on the federal government to approve California’s law and sends a signal to Congress not to interfere in that process.

“Today’s decision marks another important victory in the fight against global warming,” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in a statement. “California and other states will prevail in our goal to take aggressive action on climate change.” Automakers sued California over the tailpipe standards it approved in 2004, which would force automakers to cut greenhouse gases by about one- third in new cars and light trucks by 2016.

The Association of International Automobile Manufacturers argued that a 1975 federal energy law gave the U.S. Department of Transportation sole jurisdiction to establish one uniform fuel economy standard.

They said piecemeal attempts by states to regulate greenhouse gases would force manufacturers to make vehicles using too many different standards, raising the cost of cars and eliminating some model choices. They also claimed it would undermine America’s foreign policy efforts on climate change.

But Ishii rejected those claims, saying Congress gave California and the EPA the authority to regulate vehicle emissions, even if they impose rules that are more strict than those from federal highway officials.

“It would be the very definition of folly” to prevent environmental agencies from regulating greenhouse gas emissions, Ishii wrote in his 57-page opinion.

As well as improving fuel efficiency, Ishii suggested car companies could comply with the new regulations by increasing the efficiency of air conditioners in vehicles or building more hybrid and alternative-fuel cars.

AIAM said it would consult with its 14 member companies, which include auto giants such as Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co., Nissan Motor Co. and Hyundai Motor Co., about whether to appeal.

“While we have not yet had an opportunity to analyze the California federal court’s decision, we are obviously very disappointed by this result,” said Michael Stanton, the association’s president and chief executive.

Under the Clean Air Act, California is the only state that can set its own vehicle pollution standards because it started regulating air pollution before the EPA was created. Other states are free to choose either the California rules or the federal government’s.

Twelve other states – Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington – have adopted California’s emissions standards, and the governors of Arizona, Colorado, Florida and Utah have said they also plan to adopt them.

First, they need the EPA to grant California’s waiver request. Frustrated by the lack of federal action, 14 states joined California in a lawsuit against the agency in November.

“Unfortunately, the EPA is under the thumb of the White House,” California Attorney General Jerry Brown said Wednesday. “I hope this will get the attention of President Bush and have him support significant caps on greenhouse gas emissions.”

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal added that the EPA should “stop its shameful stonewalling and address this growing and grave threat to the environment and human health.”

Last summer, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson said he would decide on California’s waiver request by the end of this year.

The state’s plan to reduce tailpipe emissions is key to California’s goal of lowering greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. About a third of the state’s emissions come from cars, pickups and sport utility vehicles, a figure that will only grow if they are not regulated in the nation’s most populous state.

In April, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the EPA could regulate greenhouse gases as a pollutant. In a case similar to the one in California, in September a federal judge in Vermont rejected similar claims by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which includes domestic automakers Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC.

“This is not only another nail in the industry’s auto fight, this should be the end of it,” said David Bookbinder, an attorney with Sierra Club, one of six environmental groups that intervened in the California lawsuit. “They’ve lost every attempt they’ve made to stop the standards.”

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