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The federal government has turned down California's plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks. The Environmental Protection Agency said last night it would not grant the state a waiver to implement tough tailpipe standards. California and 17 other states want the rules to help them fight global warming.

NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: California has the most aggressive strategy of any state in the nation to curb climate change. The centerpiece is a plan to reduce tailpipe emissions by nearly a third by the year 2016. But the state needed the EPA's approval to go ahead.

Agency administrator Steven Johnson told Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger the answer is no.

Mr. STEPHEN JOHNSON (EPA): His state does not meet the compelling and extraordinary conditions needed to grant a waiver for motor vehicle greenhouse gas emission standards.

SHOGREN: Johnson spoke to reporters in a hastily arranged conference call. The EPA has never rejected a request from California to set tougher air pollution standards. But Johnson says this time is different because climate change is a global problem.

Mr. JOHNSON: California is not exclusive in facing this challenge.

Ms. MARY NICHOLS (California Air Resources Board): If global warming is not a compelling reason to take action sooner and more comprehensively, I don't know what is.

SHOGREN: That's Mary Nichols. She chairs California's Air Resources Board. California officials say global warming threatens the state's water supply by shrinking the snow path. Rising sea levels are eroding its coasts, and the number of wildfires is increasing. Nichols says the state will, quote, "sue and sue and sue again."

Ms. NICHOLS: We intend to persevere and to prevail.

SHOGREN: The EPA's decision came on the same day that President Bush signed a bill the increase how far cars must go on a gallon of gas. It raises average fuel efficiency to 35 miles per gallon by 2020. That measure will cut greenhouse gas emissions, but it won't cut them as quickly as California's plan would. Still, EPA's Stephen Johnson says the federal approach is the right way.

Mr. JOHNSON: The Bush administration is moving forward with a clear national solution, not a confusing patchwork of state rules, to reduce America's climate footprint from vehicles.

SHOGREN: Environmentalists say that thinking misses the clear message from the U.S. Supreme Court and two federal district courts. The Supreme Court told the EPA earlier this year that it has the power and responsibility to regulate greenhouse gasses from cars. The district courts both rejected lawsuits by the auto industry arguing that California rules would conflict with fuel efficiency standards.

Vickie Patton, a lawyer for Environmental Defense, quoted from one of the district judges' rulings.

Ms. VICKIE PATTON (Environmental Defense): He said such an argument is the very definition of folly. I would say that given the imperative to address the global warming crisis, it's not just folly, it's tragic.

SHOGREN: The courts won't be the only venue in the fight to preserve California's rules. A powerful Democratic senator said last night she would introduce legislation in Congress. Barbara Boxer from California chairs the Senate Environment Committee.

Senator BARBARA BOXER (California, Democrat): Oh, there is going to be tremendous fallout from this. Anyone who has a heartbeat and a pulse knows that global warming is a future crisis that we must advert. And we cannot afford to lose time.

SHOGREN: Any legislation will be difficult to pass in an election year. The auto industry says it supports the EPA decision and says it likes the idea of one national standard.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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