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Attorneys spar over car emissions standards at Minnesota appeals court

The Minnesota Automobile Dealers Association argues state regulators can’t hitch their wagon to an embattled Clean Air Act exemption.

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — Minnesota auto dealers went before an appeals court Thursday morning to argue the state’s impending switch to California’s Clean Air Act standards would unlawfully tether regulations for car sales to another state’s rulemaking. 

Attorneys for the Minnesota Automobile Dealers Association argued before a three-judge panel that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency doesn't have statutory or constitutional authority to adopt California’s standards, especially if the Golden State could amend its rules and pull Minnesota along with it. 

California uses more stringent emissions standards than most of the country, a posture enabled by a federal waiver of the standards created by the Clean Air Act. That division has seen substantial controversy in recent years. Donald Trump's Environmental Protection Agency scuttled the waiver in 2019, only for the Biden administration to restore it earlier this year. Both actions brought a flurry of suits in response. In addition to California, 15 other states have adopted the standards since the CAA’s passage in 1970. Minnesota would be the 16th. 

"The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has given away Minnesota’s rulemaking authority," attorney James Dickey of the Upper Midwest Law Center told the panel of Judges Peter Reyes and Randall Slieter and Chief Judge Susan Segal.

Calling the California rules “one-size-fits-all,” Dickey said they’d hurt car dealers’ businesses and that adopting the waiver would put Minnesota’s rules at the mercy of the California Legislature. 

Representing the MPCA, Special Assistant Attorney General Peter Surdo argued the auto dealers hadn't established that the new rules would hurt them enough to confer standing. He pointed to the dismissal of an earlier suit the dealers brought in federal court, where he said their claims of harm were found “too speculative to be credible.” 

Putting standing aside, he added, Minnesota's Legislature had expressly granted the MPCA and other state agencies the authority to refer to documents that could change, and the federal acceptance of California’s waiver made it fair game for the agency to adopt. So long as those documents were reasonably available to the public, Surdo said, they could be incorporated by reference in MPCA rules. 

"Whether or not it’s a good idea, as our friends across the aisle have suggested, is a political question” best left to the Legislature, Surdo said. 

In an interview following the hearing, Dan Louismet, general counsel for the Minnesota Automobile Dealers Association, said he was pleased that the judges seemed engaged with Dickey’s arguments. 

Asked about the on-the-ground issues with differing emissions standards, Louismet said they would lead to higher costs for Minnesota drivers, but stressed that the association’s case was “not an environmental-law case, it is not a case against electric vehicles. It is a government-powers case.” 

“We are not in favor of the supply-side approach,” he added. 

The MPCA issued a statement following the hearing, defending its decision to adopt the standards, working to counter the association’s economic arguments and expressing confidence that the standards would be upheld. 

“The clean cars standards adopted in 2021 provide more choices for Minnesotans who want to purchase plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles that save them money and protect the environment,” the statement read. “The standards also grow our economy by supporting the 16 companies and more than 3,000 Minnesotans working on electric vehicle parts and technology.” 

The agency also expressed confidence that the standards would be upheld. 

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