A new lawsuit targeting the Trump administration’s decision to cut off California’s authority to set auto emissions standards complicates an already-messy legal conflict.
California and 25 other states and cities filed suit Sept. 20 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, taking aim at a new Department of Transportation rule stipulating that federal law preempts states from regulating fuel economy.
DOT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released the regulation in tandem with the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to revoke a waiver under the Clean Air Act that allows California to set its own tailpipe emissions standards.
The state coalition’s new lawsuit targets NHTSA’s action; states and other challengers are expected to separately sue EPA over the waiver issue in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
The splintering of the litigation between the district court and appeals court is expected to feed procedural wrangling that could delay a final court resolution— injecting further uncertainty in the Trump administration’s years-long effort to reconfigure clean car regulations.
Interpretation of Act
At issue in the new lawsuit is NHTSA’s interpretation of the Energy Policy and Conservation Act. The agency says the 1975 law preempts state-level emissions standards that affect fuel economy issues NHTSA oversees. That includes California’s greenhouse gas rules for vehicles, the agency says.
In the newly finalized regulatory package, EPA and NHTSA officials argued that all legal challenges must flow through the D.C. Circuit “given the inherent relationship between the agencies’ actions.”
Government lawyers are expected to challenge the states’ decision to go after NHTSA in district court.
Bracewell LLP attorney Jeff Holmstead, who led EPA’s air office during the George W. Bush administration, noted the joint nature of the agencies’ decision and said he agrees with their argument that all related challenges belong in the D.C. Circuit.
Environmental lawyers aren’t so sure.
“They are legally distinct,” said Donahue Goldberg Weaver & Littleton’s Sean Donahue, who represents environmentalists who oppose the Trump administration’s decision. “They are equally unlawful, but they’re legally distinct.”
Donahue said his clients are still evaluating their next steps.
The Trump administration’s final emissions and fuel economy standards, which are still pending, are expected to trigger yet another layer of litigation.
In addition to California and 22 other states, Los Angeles, New York City and Washington, D.C. are part of the legal challenge.
The case being heard is California v. Chao, D.D.C., No. 1-02826, complaint 9/20/19.