The Trump administration’s rollback of fuel efficiency standards provoked a series of legal actions Wednesday, as attorneys general in 23 states as well as a dozen environmental groups filed separate challenges to a rule that would weaken Obama-era fuel efficiency standards.
In a petition filed in the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the states, led by California, as well as the District of Columbia asked the court to review rules finalized by the EPA and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration March 31.
In a news release, California argued that the final rules violate the congressional mandates and were based on an analysis “riddled with errors, omissions, and unfounded assumptions in an attempt to justify their desired result.”
“The Administration claims their new rule will save money and lives, but previously undisclosed internal documents reveal how far from the truth that is,” Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a press statement announcing the lawsuit.
He called the rule “a job-killer and public health hazard” that “will increase costs to consumers and allow the emission of dangerous pollutants that directly threaten the health of our families.”
'Public health risks'
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said the rule would “degrade air quality, exacerbate serious public health risks, and worsen the climate crisis” during a pandemic.
“We are suing to fight against the lobbyists who wrote this rule for the fossil fuel industry, and to stand up for federal law, science, our residents, our economy, and the right to breathe clean air,” she said.
An EPA spokesman said the agency does not comment on pending legislation but defended the final rule, saying it “provides a sensible, single national program that strikes the right regulatory balance, protects our environment, and sets reasonable targets for the auto industry, while supporting our economy and the safety of American families.”
Separately Wednesday, a coalition of 12 environmental and progressive groups filed two challenges to the rule — one targeted at the Department of Transportation and the other the EPA.
The Trump administration announced March 31 final rules that would increase fuel efficiency standards by 1.5 percent each year through model year 2026, starting with model year 2021. The new rules require a fleet-wide average of about 40 miles per gallon by 2026.
Those new standards were far less stringent than rules issued by President Barack Obama in 2012, which would have mandated about 5 percent annual increases, requiring automakers to sell vehicles that average, across a fleet, 54 miles per gallon by 2025.
In loosening the Obama-era rules, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao argued the new standards would save lives, prevent injuries, lower the price of new vehicles and clean the environment.
They argued that the new rules would reduce the price of new vehicles by $1,000, result in 2.7 million additional vehicles sold because of the lower price, and result in 3,300 fewer crash fatalities and 397,000 fewer injuries over the lifetime of vehicles built according to the new standards.
Trump had originally proposed to freeze standards at 2020 levels but received pushback even from some automakers, who worried such a step was too drastic a reversal from the Obama-era standards.
But his argument was weakened by the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, which found “significant weaknesses in the scientific analysis” behind that plan to lock in standards at 2020 levels.
The petitions filed Wednesday are not the first to challenge the final rules: On April 30, the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute filed a petition in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit arguing that the administration did not adequately loosen the Obama-era standards.
Instead, the suit argued, they should have frozen or reduced the standards even further.
“The agency was right to roll back the scheduled increases in fuel economy standards, which would have made cars less crashworthy and increased highway fatalities,” said Sam Kazman, CEI general counsel. “But NHTSA should have reduced those standards even more, and perhaps frozen them entirely.”
The state suit included attorneys general of California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia.
The California Air Resources Board, the cities of Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Denver, and the counties of San Francisco and Denver also joined the coalition in filing the lawsuit.
The 12 environmental groups asking for court review of the rule were the Center for Biological Diversity, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Communities for a Better Environment, Conservation Law Foundation, Consumer Federation of America, Environment America, Environmental Defense Fund, Environmental Law and Policy Center, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Public Citizen, Sierra Club and the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The petitions were the latest salvo in what has been a yearslong war over the fuel efficiency standard. Last September, the administration moved to block California and other states from setting emission standards more ambitious than the federal government’s. California, which has had the legal authority to set its own standards since the 1970s, has challenged that move in court as well.