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At DC Circuit, red states argue federal emission rules will force nation to adopt electric vehicles

Conservative states and fuel industry groups found an unlikely ally as they argued, along with an environmental advocacy group, that EPA rules are too focused on electric vehicles.

WASHINGTON (CN) — A D.C. Circuit panel heard arguments on Thursday over dual challenges to a recent set of federal rules meant to limit the greenhouse gas emissions of “light-duty” motor vehicles — cars, vans, SUVs and pickup trucks — that critics say effectively mandates an extreme transition to electric vehicles. 

Arguments centered on a 2021 Environmental Protection Agency rule that would cut down on pollution from automobile tailpipes, one of the largest sources of planet-warming emissions, and similar emission standards set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for cars built from 2024 through 2026. 

Transportation accounts for approximately 28% of the United States' total greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2021 EPA study. Light-duty trucks, which include SUVs, pickup trucks and minivans, account for most emissions within that group at 37%, followed by medium- and heavy-duty trucks at 23% and passenger cars making up 21% of transportation emissions.

First in the pair of cases combined for arguments on Thursday was a challenge brought by 15 conservative-leaning states and industry groups who say Congress, not the EPA, should sign off on limits that would so significantly shift American life they exceed the federal agency’s authority.

The argument hinges on the “major questions doctrine," which has come before the Supreme Court in recent years. The high court used the principle, which is a matter of statutory interpretation rather than a written law, to block President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness program earlier this summer.  

That made-up doctrine became the focus of the three-judge panel for much of the first set of oral arguments Thursday, as the judges attempted to define clear boundaries as to the extent of the environmental agency’s authority.

Taking the place of Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is in the midst of an impeachment trial, Texas Principal Deputy Solicitor General Lanora Pettit argued EPA set emission standards so stringent that meeting the limits mandates a transition toward electric vehicles.

Jeffrey Wall, of Sullivan & Cromwell, who represents the intervening Renewable Fuels Company, joined Pettit. The two attorneys repeatedly pointed to a section of the EPA rule that they argued revealed the agency’s aim to completely phase out traditional, combustion-engine vehicles. 

“Compliance with the final standards will necessitate greater implementation and pace of technology penetration through 2026 using existing [greenhouse gas] reduction technologies, including further deployment,” of electronic vehicles, the rule states. 

All three judges, including the Trump-appointed U.S. Circuit Judge Gregory Katsas, expressed some doubt as to whether that language or other similar sections indeed show the government intended to set a standard with which only electric vehicles could possibly comply.

U.S. Circuit Judge Florence Pan, a Biden appointee, pointed out that the EPA estimated the standard would only increase electric vehicle use from about 7% to 17% by 2026 — a shift hardly large enough to bring the major questions doctrine into the picture. 

Sue Chen, an environmental attorney for the Department of Justice, argued the standard was by no means a mandate that Americans fully forgo their old cars, but is meant to encourage that process in order to meet the nation’s climate goals. 

Joining the suit were the states of Texas, Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Utah. Arizona was originally part of the group, while Republican former Attorney General Mark Brnovich was in office, but his Democratic successor, Attorney General Kris Mayes, pulled out when she took the office. 

Thursday’s second case centered on a similar standard set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The Natural Resources Defense Council argued the rule wrongly relies on California’s state emission standards and thus failed to calculate the “maximum feasible average fuel economy standards” based on the current fleet of vehicles on the market today.

Pete Huffman, a staff attorney for the organization, said the rule should not have excluded efficient combustion engine technologies, like so-called high-compression-ratio or "Atkinson-enabled" engines, which can also reduce emissions.

He pointed to the Atkinson engines — which use shorter piston strokes to save on fuel — as a way the agency could have set the standard without focusing solely on electric vehicles.

A third case on Friday will address California’s long-standing authority to set higher emission standards than the federal government’s.

Scott Hochberg, staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the intervenors in Friday’s case, said the three challenges pose a considerable threat to climate efforts.

"We can’t gut clean car standards that have been game changers for consumers, public health, the climate and clean air,” Hochberg said in a statement Wednesday. “I hope the court rejects these short-sighted attempts to weaken and undo fundamental laws that protect us all. Because automakers have time and time again refused to use proven technologies to reduce pollution, we need strong clean car standards to lead the way.”

The final judge on Thursday's panel was Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Sri Srinivasan, a Barack Obama appointee.

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Categories / Appeals, Environment, Technology

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