California is suing the US federal government, in an attempt to force car makers to conform to tougher cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.
California wants car emissions cut by 30% over the next eight years
The lawsuit comes after the federal Environmental Protection Agency denied California a waiver from US law needed to enact its own efficiency targets.
The Epa says it wants to avoid a confusing patchwork of different regulations across states.
But California says the Epa has "done nothing" to curb greenhouse gases.
Fifteen other states or state agencies are set to join the action.
California Attorney General Jerry Brown filed the suit in the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on Wednesday.
It challenged the Epa's denial of California's request to implement its own emissions law - which would require a 30% reduction in motor vehicle greenhouse gas emissions by 2016 by improving fuel efficiency standards.
For years, California has been allowed to set its own environmental targets in recognition of the "compelling and extraordinary conditions" the state faces - and the Epa has never before denied California a waiver request.
California claims it faces dangerous consequences from global warming, including to its mountain snowpack, which supplies a third of the state's drinking water, and to miles of coastline and levees threatened by rising sea levels.
"The Epa has done nothing at the national level to curb greenhouse gases and now it has wrongfully and illegally blocked California's landmark tailpipe emissions standards, despite the fact that 16 states have moved to adopt them," said Attorney General Brown in a statement.
He said he was aware the legal challenge could turn into a "long fight".
But the Epa says new energy legislation signed by President George W Bush will provide a far more effective approach to reducing greenhouse gases than a patchwork of state regulations.
Fifteen other states or state agencies said on Wednesday that they plan to intervene in support of California's action.
They are: Massachusetts, Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.