SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico is joining California and a dozen other states in trying to require tougher vehicle emissions standards for new cars, light trucks and sport utility vehicles.
The standards mandate cleaner-burning cars and trucks to help fight global warming.
The New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board and the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Air Quality Control Board adopted the standards shortly before midnight Tuesday, rushing to meet a deadline for the regulations to take effect next year.
The emission requirements will apply starting with 2011 model cars, which become available to consumers in 2010.
However, it's uncertain when — or if — New Mexico and other states will be able to implement the tougher emissions mandate because of federal regulatory hurdles and legal challenges.
New Mexico faces a lawsuit over its attempt to adopt the emissions requirements first developed by California.
A group of Democratic legislators, car dealers and a farmer have filed a lawsuit in state district court in Las Cruces challenging the power of the Environmental Improvement Board to adopt the more stringent emission standards. The lawsuit contends that the Legislature must change state law before the California standards could be approved.
Under the federal Clean Air Act, California has the authority to set its own vehicle pollution standards. Other states can use either federally mandated standards or California's rules.
California adopted its standards in 2004 in response to a law enacted two years earlier to regulate automobile emissions to lower greenhouse gases. However, the standards are on hold — along with plans by New Mexico and other states to use the same emission requirements — while California waits for a federal waiver from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Automakers have filed a lawsuit challenging the California emissions requirements. They contend the standards in effect are a mandate for higher fuel economy and only the federal government can set those for vehicles.
California and other states, including New Mexico, have sued the EPA to force the federal agency to decide whether to allow California to move ahead with its emission requirements.
Supporters of the tougher standards say they will lower emissions of greenhouse gas, including carbon dioxide, as well as force the manufacture of vehicles with improved fuel economy and the use of new technologies to produce ''zero emission vehicles.''
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, directed the Environmental Improvement Board to adopt the California emissions standards. The governor appoints board members.
Approval of the emissions standards gives Richardson more political ammunition for his presidential campaign. On the campaign trail, the governor touts New Mexico's efforts to reduce greenhouse gases and he plans to focus on energy as a top issue leading up the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary in early January.
''New Mexico is taking deliberate steps to protect the environment from the effects of global warming for future generations because the EPA has failed to do so,'' Richardson said in a statement Wednesday.
The standards will apply to new vehicles sold in New Mexico — not used cars or new cars before the 2011 model year.
The Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Air Quality Control Board adopted the standards because it has the power to regulate air pollution in the metropolitan area.
Four Democratic lawmakers — Sen. John Arthur Smith of Deming, Sen. Timothy Jennings of Roswell, Rep. George Hanosch of Grants and Rep. Jim Trujillo of Santa Fe — joined in the lawsuit along with four car dealers from Clovis, Alamogordo and Las Cruces and a Curry County farmer, Scott Pipkin.
They filed the lawsuit on Tuesday and initially asked a judge to stop the Environmental Improvement Board from adopting the emissions standards until the legal challenge was resolved.
Now that the board has acted, the lawsuit will be revised and the court will be asked to put the new emission rules on hold while the case is decided, said Victor Marshall, an Albuquerque lawyer handling the lawsuit.
At issue in the lawsuit is a legal question about the powers of the legislative and executive branches of government and whether ''the executive branch can simply bypass the Legislature and do all of this by decree,'' said Marshall.
The lawsuit contends that a state law prevents the board from adopting air quality regulations more stringent than federal air quality requirements.
Environment Secretary Ron Curry took issue with the lawsuit and maintained that New Mexico had authority to adopt the California emission standards under provisions of state and federal air quality laws.
According to the lawsuit, the emissions standards will not be enforceable in New Mexico without a change in state law. California prohibits consumers from importing new cars from other states that don't meet the tougher emissions requirements, the lawsuit said, unless it's a vehicle that has been driven at least 7,500 miles. New Mexico doesn't have a similar law, however.
''Therefore, if the EIB imposes the more stringent California standards on New Mexico, many New Mexicans would buy their new vehicles in adjoining states like Texas. This problem would be particularly acute for car dealers in border areas, where it is easy to drive a few miles to buy a car in another state, but it would affect dealers throughout the state,'' the lawsuit said. ''The EIB has no authority to change the car registration statute; only the Legislature can do that.''
Curry acknowledged that a change in law will be needed but he said it didn't have to be done during the 2008 legislative session because the emission standards wouldn't apply for several years.
''What we need to do is get the MVD (Motor Vehicle Division) to work with the Legislature to prevent registration of cars in New Mexico that don't meet the standards,'' said Curry.