Calif., 16 other states sue over 2022-2025 mpg rules

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — California and 16 other states are suing the Trump administration over its effort to overturn stringent gas mileage rules that would have required automakers to produce car fleets that averaged over 50 miles per gallon by 2025. In doing so, they’re setting up a major fight that could split the nation’s auto industry into two regions with distinct emission rules.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra

The lawsuit, filed in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and spearheaded by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, alleges that that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s effort to roll back the stringent gas mileage rules that were adopted by former President Barack Obama’s administration is “unlawful.” Becerra was joined by his colleagues from Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and the District of Columbia.

Minnesota also joined the lawsuit through its Pollution Control Agency and Department of Transportation.

Becerra said Tuesday that that states that are filing the lawsuit represent over 40 percent of the nation’s auto market

“The evidence is irrefutable: today’s clean car standards are achievable, science-based and a boon for hardworking American families. But the EPA and Administrator Scott Pruitt refuse to do their job and enforce these standards,” Becerra said in a statement. “Enough is enough. We’re not looking to pick a fight with the Trump Administration, but when the stakes are this high for our families’ health and our economic prosperity, we have a responsibility to do what is necessary to defend them.”

The EPA declined to comment.

California has been threatening to sue the Trump administration over the gas mileage rules since EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced in the beginning of April that he was reversing the Obama administration’s decision to finalize the mileage rules, known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards. Pruitt said then the Obama-era mileage rules, which originally covered the model years between 2017 and 2025, are “not appropriate and should be revised.”

California sets its own emissions standards under a waiver included in the 1970 Clean Air Act. A dozen other states have adopted the California rules, accounting for a third of the U.S. auto market.

A proposal that’s reported to be floated by the Trump administration would freeze the mileage rules at the 2020 level through at least the 2026 model year. The new rules would also preempt California and other states that have voluntarily set higher mileage standards.

Environmental groups in Washington cheered the filing of the lawsuit.

“The Trump administration’s plan to roll back our clean car and fuel economy standards will produce regulatory pandemonium, not regulatory certainty, for America’s auto industry,” said Luke Tonachel, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Clean Vehicles and Fuels Project. “NRDC stands with California and the other states representing 140 million Americans in challenging this brazen attempt to gut standards that safeguard our health and our climate and save consumers billions of dollars at the pump.”

The fuel-economy rules at issue were enacted in 2012 and began taking effect with the 2017 model year. They called for ramping up from the current fleet-wide average of about 35 miles per gallon for cars and trucks, to more than 37 miles per gallon in 2019 and nearly 39 miles per gallon in 2020. The eventual goal of between 50 and 52.6 miles per gallon was set for 2025.

The CAFE rules, intended to reduce dependence on foreign oil and reduce greenhouse gases, were put in place by the Obama administration when gas prices topped $4 per gallon. Automakers have since argued that the rules are too stringent, and drivers have demonstrated in recent years that they are less interested in fuel-efficient cars and electric vehicles with gas prices that are now around $3.

Democrats in Congress have assailed the rolling back of standards as a sop to automakers who have complained about the escalating mileage rules.

“Such a proposal, if finalized, would harm U.S. national and economic security, undermine efforts to combat global warming pollution, create regulatory and manufacturing uncertainty for the automobile industry and unnecessary litigation, increase the amount of gasoline consumers would have to buy, and runs counter to statements that both of you have made to members of Congress,” Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., wrote in a letter sent Tuesday to Pruitt and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

Automakers have argued the mileage rules are too stringent because car buyers have demonstrated a strong preference for SUVs and pick up trucks now that gas prices have fallen. They also say the Obama administration reneged on a promise to review the gas mileage rules in 2018 after they voluntarily agreed to them in 2012.

Under the Obama administration’s rules, automakers would have faced fines of $5.50 for each one-tenth of a mile-per-gallon their average fuel economy falls short of the standard for a model year, multiplied by the total volume of vehicles sold.

Karl Brauer, executive publisher for Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book, said the lawsuit may have been a gambit by states that are angry with the Trump administration’s decision to reopen debate about the mileage rules to gain sway in upcoming negotiations.

“These 17 states represent a huge portion of the total U.S. car market, and they clearly feel they can influence any decision related to these CAFE requirements,” he said. “It could be another legal thorn in the Trump administration’s side, but ultimately I think the government has the legal ability to determine these standards, even at the state level.

“Most legal experts, without a political ax to grind, agree the shortened review period by the Obama administration violated the original spirit of the CAFE agreement,” Brauer continued. “There’s no clear winner in this legal debate – except, as always, the lawyers.”

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing