Reprieve for Trump on Vehicle Emission Rules May Be Short

Vehicles make their way westbound on Interstate 80 across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge as seen from Treasure Island in San Francisco on Dec. 10, 2015. (AP Photo/Ben Margot, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Using stern words in a ruling that otherwise sidelines the EPA’s challengers, the D.C. Circuit warned the Trump administration on Friday that it can’t distort established facts to weaken vehicle emission standards.

Because the Environmental Protection Agency is still in the process of rolling out new standards for emissions, the three-judge panel said they were bound to dismiss a petition for review led by California.

But merely withdrawing rules put in place under former President Barack Obama does not undercut the evidence supporting it, the judges added.

“If EPA’s rulemaking results in changes to the existing 2012 standards, it will be required to provide a reasoned explanation and cannot ignore prior factual findings and the supporting record evidence contradicting the new policy,” the opinion states.

The Sierra Club, one of eight environmental organizations that joined the 18-state coalition in court, took heart in the conclusion.

“Today’s decision reaffirms that the Trump administration can’t sweep facts under the rug as it attempts to roll back the clean car standards,” the Sierra Club’s chief climate counsel Joanne Spalding said in a statement. “The Obama EPA performed a detailed review of the current standards, which shows that the standards are not only well within reach but achievable at an even lower cost. We will hold the Trump Administration accountable every step of the way for ignoring the powerful technical record that supports such strong climate and consumer protections.”

Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency took its position weeks before the inauguration of President Donald Trump, determining that it need not revise the standards adopted in 2012 because it appeared “practical and feasible for automakers to meet the standards at reasonable cost.”

In addition to touting emissions-reducing technologies as less expensive than projected in past years, the EPA said the pace of innovation had accelerated beyond expectations.

As todays ruling notes, however, the “EPA changed lanes” quickly thereafter.

In March 2017, Trump told a Detroit audience that he was “going to cancel” the determination from Obama’s EPA in favor of a comprehensive mid-term evaluation.

The following year, then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said the “current standards may be too stringent.” The agency’s new analysis cited “greater uncertainty as to whether technology will be available to meet the standards,” a contrast to the 2016 conclusion that car manufacturers would not need more hybrids and electric vehicles to meet the standards, thanks to advanced gasoline technologies.

The report also said under Obama the agency failed to consider the effect on low income consumers, saying “affordability concerns and their impact on new vehicle sales should be more thoroughly assessed.” 

The about-face drew a court challenge under the Administrative Procedure Act. Tossing the petition for review on Friday, however, U.S. Circuit Judge Judith Rogers wrote for the panel that Trump’s announcement did not reflect a rule change so much as an marked intention by the EPA to begin reviewing old reports.   

“The Revised Determination did not create the type of legal consequences for EPA that entail final action,” wrote Rogers, a Clinton appointee.

U.S. Circuit Judges Cornelia Pillard and Sri Srinivasan, both Obama appointees, concurred.

Sean Donahue, an attorney for the challengers with the firm Donahue, Goldberg & Weaver, took heart in Friday’s result.

“More important, and very gratifying to us, the court expressly cited and relied upon EPA counsel’s concessions at oral argument that Scott Pruitt’s 2018 Revised Determination does not in any way lessen EPA’s obligations to justify any departures from its affirmation of the existing standards based on detailed findings in January 2017,” Donahue said. 

A representative for the Environmental Protection Agency said the agency was reviewing the decision.

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