WASHINGTON - In its first major decision pitting the automobile industry against the petroleum industry, the administration of former oilman George W. Bush sided with the carmakers.
But many say the real winner is the environment.
Bush officials last week lifted their hold on rules adopted late in the Clinton administration to drastically reduce sulfur in diesel fuel, effective in 2006, and to sharply cut exhaust pollutants from large trucks and buses, beginning in 2007.
The rules are supported strongly by automakers because they want to put more diesel engines in cars and light trucks. They say they need low-sulfur fuel so their diesels can meet light-vehicle air standards.
But proponents of the new rules are not in the clear yet. Refiners still have a challenge pending in federal court, and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers has decided to intervene. That is, carmakers are going to court to help defend the government's environmental regulations.
The petition to intervene was to be filed by today, March 5, with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Frank O'Donnell, executive director of the environmental group Clean Air Trust, said he also expects the Bush administration to vigorously defend the rules, now that the administration has put its stamp of approval on them.
Previously, he and others had worried that a weak defense of the Clinton-authored rules would lead to a settlement undermining their effectiveness.
Until last week, the rules had been in limbo. Bush Chief of Staff Andrew Card on inauguration day put a blanket 60-day hold on all new regulations. Some low-sulfur advocates feared the hold would give opponents a chance to derail or dilute them.
EPA Administrator Christie Whitman last week said the Bush administration determined the rules are needed 'to protect public health and the environment.'
Under the rules, sulfur in diesel fuel would be cut from the current level of about 500 parts per million to 15 parts per million. And pollutants from large diesel engines, such as oxides of nitrogen and soot, would be cut by 95 percent.
Advocates of reducing or eliminating sulfur in fuel say that sulfur would contaminate the emission control equipment needed to clean the exhaust as well as create additional compounds that add to pollution.
Sulfur in gasoline also is on the way out - under separate rules adopted at the end of 1999. Bigger refineries are required to cut sulfur in gasoline from the current average of 300 parts per million to 30 parts per million by 2005.