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Minnesota appeals court upholds stricter emissions standards

State regulators, the court found, were within their authority to adopt California's vehicle emissions limits, which are more stringent than federal rules.

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — The Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the state’s adoption of California car emissions standards Monday, finding that state pollution regulators had the authority to do so despite the objections of car dealers. 

Minnesota’s Pollution Control Agency, or MPCA, adopted a “clean car rule” in 2021, at the end of a two-year process initiated after federal regulators relaxed their own emissions standards. Under the federal Clean Air Act, states’ emissions standards must fall into one of two camps: either follow the rules of the Environmental Protection Agency, established in 1970 alongside the Act, or the rules used in California. The Golden State had already adopted a more stringent set of standards at the time to deal with smog in the Los Angeles area, and has had a waiver to make its own rules ever since. 

California’s standards, mimicked by 16 other states and the District of Columbia, include not only restrictions on which cars can be sold but a requirement that manufacturers sell a certain number of ultra-low or zero-emission vehicles, which can include electric and hybrid vehicles. Minnesota’s adoption of the rule would go into effect for new vehicles starting with the 2025 model year. 

The Minnesota Automobile Dealers Association, or MADA, took issue with the adoption of those standards and appealed the MPCA’s decision early in 2021. Appearing before the state appeals court later that year, attorney James Dickey of the Upper Midwest Law Center argued that the MPCA had “given away Minnesota’s rulemaking authority” by incorporating California’s rules by reference. Adopting the waiver, he argued, would put the fate of Minnesota car dealers in the hands of California legislators. 

A three-judge panel found otherwise Monday. In the court’s opinion, Chief Judge Susan Segal dismissed Dickey’s concerns that the incorporation of California regulations “as amended” would have that effect, noting that the MPCA would need to initiate rulemaking once again to account for any major updates to the rules. 

“The MPCA’s authority to incorporate provisions by reference is expressly sanctioned in section 14.07 of the Minnesota Administrative Procedure Act,” Segal wrote, noting that incorporated provisions need only be “conveniently available to the public.” 

She also rejected the idea that the Legislature improperly delegated its authority to the MPCA by failing to provide sufficient guidance.

“MADA identifies no specific gaps in the applicable sections” of the relevant statute, she wrote. “As the MPCA has represented and we have concluded, the ‘as amended’ clause does not allow the automatic incorporation of ‘major updates’ into the Clean Car Rule. And, as we note above, legislative guidance to administrative agencies ‘may be laid down in very broad and general terms.’”

MADA’s in-house counsel, Dan Louismet, said the group was “disappointed in the decision,” and that its board of directors would review it and contemplate a possible appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court. He also reiterated the association’s argument that Minnesota does not meet the requirements laid out by the Clean Air Act for adoption of California’s standards, which the appeals court also ruled against. 

The MPCA, meanwhile, issued a statement celebrating the decision.

“This standard is an important part of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota, while the state also builds out the electric vehicle charging network, advances alternative modes of transportation, and works to create cleaner fuels that support Minnesota's economy,” the agency’s communications director, Andrea Cournoyer, wrote. 

The MPCA pointed out during its arguments that transportation was the state's single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, and called the proposed rule "a necessary step" to reach its 2025 and 2050 goals for emission reductions after failing to meet its statutory goal in 2015.

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