Michigan joins California in suing feds over bid to roll back mpg rules

Keith Laing
The Detroit News

Washington — California and 22 other states including Michigan are suing two federal agencies over the Trump administration's effort to roll back tougher gas-mileage rules enacted by the Obama administration. 

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in Washington federal court, is the latest salvo in a battle between the Golden State and the Trump administration that has divided the domestic auto industry and left in limbo the rules governing air pollution for the nation's automakers. A separate lawsuit was filed by a coalition of 12 environmental groups.

The California-led states, including Michigan, have also sued the EPA over the Trump administration's effort to revoke California's right to set its own car-emission standards under the Clean Air Act. 

Michigan joined California and 20 other states in suing federal agencies over the Trump administration's effort to roll back tougher gas-mileage rules enacted by the Obama administration.

“The Trump administration touted the SAFE Vehicles Rule as giving the American people better access to safer, more affordable vehicles that are cleaner for the environment," Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, said in a statement. "But it does none of these things. Instead, this rule sabotages investment in technology that is better for the environment and slashes incentives to increase fuel efficiency which is better for drivers." 

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, also a Democrat, added: "President Trump should have listened to his own scientists. America’s Clean Car Standards were doing the job. We’re going to court to defend them.”

The Environmental Protection Agency defended its effort to ease the standards, saying: "As finalized, the SAFE (rule) 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." 

NHTSA added: "The Safe Vehicles Final Rule marked the culmination of over a year of close collaboration between EPA and NHTSA, just as the agencies collaborated in prior joint rulemakings in this and the previous administration." 

The Trump administration's move to relax mpg rules is part of a broader arc of environmental deregulation that has been a staple of his administration and supportive Republicans in Congress. Prior moves include reopening coal mines, easing rules on power plant emissions and moving to revoke California's power to set its own emission standards for cars. Several of the moves have triggered lawsuits. 

David Uhlmann, director of the Environmental Law and Policy Program at the University of Michigan Law School, said states have routinely filed lawsuits about federal environmental regulations for years. Uhlmann, a former U.S. Department of Justice employee who worked in the agency's environmental division during the presidencies of George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, said the pique between the sides has become more pronounced as the Trump administration has targeted long-standing laws and anti-pollution programs.

"To some extent, this is where we have devolved to in environmental law," he said.  "Lawsuits follow nearly every rulemaking, with the states dueling it out in support of or in opposition to the new rule depending upon where they align on the political spectrum.  But the Trump administration has taken us to new depths, surpassing anything that came before, and putting public health and the environment in peril."  

The new Trump administration plan calls for reducing the required annual fleetwide average mpg increases for automakers for model years 2021-26 — from the original 5% that would have required, to a less-stringent 1.5%. Automakers will be required to achieve a fleetwide average of 40.4 mpg by 2026 under the new requirements, down from an average of 46.7 mpg for cars and trucks by 2025 that was mandated in the existing regulations.

Ben Longstreth, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in announcing the separate lawsuit filed Wednesday by environmental lobbying groups: “These illegal rollbacks mean more air pollution that harms our health and fuels the climate crisis, while sucking billions of dollars more out of Americans’ pockets at the pump." 

Thirteen states and Washington, D.C., have adopted tougher California’s mileage rules, meaning automakers could be left with one set of rules for a quarter of the country and another set for the remaining states unless the White House and California can reach an agreement. Congress gave California the right to set its own standards under the Clear Air Act of 1970.

The fight over fuel economy has divided the domestic car industry, with General Motors Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles siding with the Trump administration in a bid to ensure one set of standards for all of the nation's cars. 

Ford Motor Co. has sided with California, and in July reached an agreement with the state to voluntarily increase the average fuel economy its fleet from 2021 levels by 3.7% per year, reaching an average of nearly 50 mpg by 2026. Volkswagen, Honda and BMW were also part of that agreement.

GM, Fiat Chrysler and Toyota Motor Corp., together with the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which lobbies for automakers, have announced intentions to intervene in the latest lawsuit between California and the federal government to argue for one set of standards. The carmakers and the group already intervened in the previous lawsuit filed by California and the other states over California's right to set its own rules. 

In a statement Wednesday, Ford Motor Co. said: “We are not a part of the litigation or the Alliance’s effort to defend the Administration’s rule. We have chosen a different path in support of a voluntary framework with California. 

"For Ford, this framework is in line with our support for greenhouse gas emissions reductions consistent with the Paris Climate Accord," the company continued. "In addition, the voluntary framework gives more regulatory certainty which protects the long-term interests of the industry, affordability, consumers and the environment.”


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Twitter: @Keith_Laing