The number 13 has long been associated with bad luck; whether such misfortune will be visited upon the federal government in a case involving 13 state attorneys general remains to be seen.
The top prosecutors have all signed on to promise legal retaliation against any moves by President Donald Trump’s administration to roll back vehicle emissions standards—a possibility the President strongly forecasted earlier this year when he publicly directed several federal agencies to reconsider the numbers. The AGs hail from Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. (Washington, D.C. also joined.)
California has already delivered on the vow, recently jumping in on a lawsuit also aimed at lowering fuel efficiency rates in the country.
And while the emissions standards are being revisited, that case may set the precedent for any future arguments the lawyers could make against the administration—or vice versa—on an issue that will likely spur a bitter legal battle between the states and the federal government for years to come.
Something in the Air
At stake are the air pollution standards that cars and light-duty trucks must meet in the near future. Currently, automakers are federally required for their 2025 models to hit a target of 54.5 miles per gallon.
Combined with previous benchmarks set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for model years 2017 through 2025, the standards are projected to save approximately 40 billion barrels of refined gasoline and diesel fuel while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 540 million metric tons—the equivalent of removing 422 million cars from the road—over the lifetime of the vehicles. Such efficiency is predicted to save consumers more than $1,650 per vehicle, according to the AGs.
Such efficiency is predicted to save consumers more than $1,650 per vehicle, according to the AGs.
The numbers were first dictated by the Obama administration in 2012, when the EPA partnered with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and the California Air Resources Board to generate future goals for the automotive industry. The inclusion of the California organization is significant, as the state leads the country in car ownership—representing 12% of all registered new cars in the nation last year alone.
At the time of the agreement, all three agencies called for a “midterm evaluation,” at which point the numbers would be reexamined to see if they were still realistic given existing technology. That deadline came in 2016, with the data officially given the green light in January 2017—just three months before Trump called for their reevaluation from EPA head Scott Pruitt.
According to the terms of the original agreement, the EPA has until April 2018 to determine whether fuel standards for the remainder of the time frame—model years 2022 through 2025—are appropriate.
In a May 2 letter to California Governor Jerry Brown, Pruitt justified the reconsideration of the data, claiming his own agency had conducted a legally- and procedurally-flawed review of the numbers in 2016.
Those remarks were resoundingly refuted by the attorneys general in their joint letter, addressed to Pruitt, where the group called his comments “erroneous” and “inconsistent with [Pruitt’s] stated desire to ‘follow the letter of the law.’” It went on to outline the ways in which the EPA met all legal requirements throughout the evaluation process.
The letter also mentions that final findings of the evaluation showed that carmakers actually had the technology available to produce even more fuel-efficient cars by 2025, but the EPA ultimately decided to keep current requirements in place. The group of attorneys promised to “vigorously pursue appropriate legal remedies” to block any action the agency takes to weaken those standards.
And in fact, California has already been called to that task.
Order in the Court
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers is currently fighting the 2025 standards in federal court, through a lawsuit filed the same week of Trump’s announcement that the midterm numbers would get a second look by his administration.
In it, the trade group alleges that the EPA’s backing of the midterm data was “arbitrary and capricious” and beyond the agency’s statuary authority.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra officially entered the fray days later, with a motion to intervene in the suit on behalf of the EPA, in order to defend the numbers.
Automakers have argued that the requirements are job killers, forcing expensive technological advancements upon the industry.
So far, the automakers have argued that the requirements are job killers, forcing expensive technological advancements upon the industry. In his March announcement, the President agreed, stating that lowered emissions standards would mean “the assault on the auto industry is over.”
Interestingly, the same manufacturer’s alliance suing the federal government issued a celebratory announcement recently, declaring the “all-time record” for auto sales was set in 2016, with 17.46 million units sold.
Indeed, it seems the true issue may not revolve around raw sales numbers but rather the type of units the industry will have to sell. In a letter addressed to Pruitt this February, the alliance outlined their grievances, stating specifically that the number of hybrid and plug-in vehicles that would have to be sold to meet federal emissions standards would “drive up vehicle prices” and depress auto sales.
For now, the court battle is ongoing—seemingly with enough legal fuel to power through years of litigation.