Massachusetts and Other States Challenge Trump’s Move to Bar State Vehicle Emissions Regulations

Led by California, 23 states, including Massachusetts, have sued the Trump administration challenging new federal regulations that strip the states’ authority to set their own vehicle emissions standards.  On December 3, 2019, the administration moved to dismiss on procedural grounds, arguing that the D.C. District Court was the wrong venue, and that the case should have been brought before the D.C. Circuit for its direct review.

The new regulations have been criticized as yet another attempt by the Trump administration to roll back Obama-era environmental protections.  The Obama administration had granted a waiver specifically to California so that it could pursue its own aggressive vehicle emissions reduction program.  The waiver, which is one of many similar waivers California has received for decades, protects California’s program from preemption by federal law.

The new regulations, known as the “One National Program” rule, were a joint effort by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) and the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration (“NHSTA”).  EPA revoked California’s waiver under the Clean Air Act, and NHSTA declared that another federal environmental law governing vehicle fuel economy—the Energy Policy and Conservation Act (“EPCA”)—preempts state programs that regulate vehicle emissions.  The states are attacking EPA’s waiver revocation in a separate proceeding before the D.C. Circuit.

Why have the other states joined the lawsuit?  Many environmentally conscious states, like Massachusetts, have adopted California’s standards.  The Massachusetts AG’s office has called the standards “a key part of the state’s effort to reduce pollution, protect public health, and fight climate change.”  That includes meeting the aggressive greenhouse gas emissions reductions targets Massachusetts has set for itself in the Global Warming Solutions Act—reducing emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

The lawsuit challenges the NHTSA’s authority under the EPCA to declare that the law now preempts California’s program.  It asserts that the rule “conflicts with Congressional intent, as recognized by the Supreme Court, to establish two distinct statutory schemes for the separate regulation of vehicle emissions and fuel economy.”  And it asserts that the rule is “contrary to Congress’s direction in [the] EPCA that NHTSA consider and give effect to California’s emissions standards.”

There will not be a resolution on the merits for now, as the administration’s motion is purely procedural.  It asserts that the states’ challenge belongs before the D.C. Circuit.  The states reply that the law does not allow for the D.C. Circuit’s direct review.

The lawsuit is one more example of AGs from certain states banding together to take on the Trump administration on environmental policy.  It is consistent with recent efforts by some of the same states to block the administration’s plans to freeze federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (“CAFE”) standards.  The previous standards envisioned a fuel-economy average of 46.7 mpg for vehicle model years 2021-2026.  The administration’s freeze would keep the average at only 37 mpg.

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