California has long been a trendsetter. Since 1967, the smog-ridden state has set clean air standards that are stricter than federal laws require. But now, the auto industry, backed by the Bush administration, is trying to halt the California Air Resources Board's progressive auto-emissions regulations.


In 1990, the state required that 10 percent of cars sold between 2003 and 2008 be "zero emission" electric vehicles. But in January 2001, during negotiations with automakers, the board conceded that the regulation was too strict and amended it, requiring 8 percent of vehicles to be "low emissions" vehicles or hybrid cars and only 2 percent to be "zero emission" vehicles.


Not satisfied with the compromise, the auto industry sued the state earlier this year, claiming the board illegally uses fuel efficiency as a yardstick to measure emissions. Under federal law, only Congress or the Department of Transportation can set fuel-efficiency standards.


After a federal judge delayed implementation of the board's regulation, Bush administration lawyers sided with automakers, claiming it would be "overly complex" if every state had its own fuel efficiency standards.


Though the California attorney general's office is disappointed by the administration's actions, they come as no surprise to David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The Bush administration is in bed with the automakers in the same way that it's in bed with coal and electric energy companies," says Doniger.