WASHINGTON — For the federal government's proposed freeze of fuel economy standards to prevail, Trump administration officials will have to win on the legal battlefield.
Already, waves of opponents — from state and local governments, to safety, consumer, energy conservation and environmental interests — are mobilizing for an all-out assault to kill the Trump administration's proposal, which would reduce the average fuel economy target for cars and light-duty trucks from an estimated 46.8 mpg for the 2025 model year and freeze it at the 2020 level of 37 mpg.
An equally tough skirmish will revolve around the administration's plan to rescind California's authority under the 1970 Clean Air Act to set stricter emissions and efficiency standards than federal agencies. Under an agreement engineered by President Barack Obama in 2012, California recognized the federal standard as equivalent to its own.
While automakers pressed the Trump administration for more flexibility under the 2012 agreement, they have voiced concern about a protracted legal battle that would throw product development plans off track or upset the alignment between U.S. and California rules.
Environmental lawyers say the Trump administration could have difficulty convincing judges of its authority to weaken fuel economy standards or the merits of the decision itself. Still, legal gray areas cloud how cases could be decided.
The government "is going to have to justify to a court why it's changing its position, because the rule was put in place after a robust administrative process and record" showed its benefits, said Cara Horowitz, co-director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the UCLA School of law. "It's often harder to justify a changing of a position than the taking of a position, because you have to overcome the presumption that the rule was right in the first place."
Attorneys general from California and a dozen states that follow its clean-car program have threatened to challenge the weaker standards. States already are fighting the initial decision to reopen the Obama administration's determination that the plan's original feasibility assumptions were appropriate.
One line of attack from clean-car supporters will be that the Obama administration's rule — finalized in January 2017, a week before President Donald Trump took office, and more than a year ahead of the target date — was legally binding.
"Does the EPA get a second bite at the apple?" said Mark LeBel, a staff attorney at the Acadia Center, a clean-energy advocacy group in the Northeast. "There's a provision in the regulations that established the standards for a midterm review, but there's no provision for revisiting a midterm review."
Under the Administrative Procedure Act, attorneys say, the administration also would have to show that its decision to rewrite the standard wasn't arbitrary or capricious.