WASHINGTON — As the Trump administration moves ahead with its controversial proposal to cap vehicle fuel economy at 2020 model year levels, a legal challenge from several groups is winding its way through a federal appeals court in the District of Columbia.
Separate petitions from California and 16 allied states, nongovernmental organizations and a coalition of power companies and utilities have been consolidated into one case. The groups question whether the EPA properly followed administrative law when it reopened the Obama administration's January 2017 decision to lock in the landmark fuel efficiency rules through the 2025 model year.
In reopening the review, then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt determined that the Obama-era standards were based on outdated information and were too stringent, setting the stage for the proposal last month to roll back the standards.
The law requires a comprehensive technical report for reassessing whether greenhouse gas emission standards were still appropriate five years out, which the Obama EPA compiled in partnership with NHTSA and the California Air Resources Board. It consisted of hundreds of pages of analysis and documentation.
Petitioners argue the Trump EPA ignored regulatory requirements by not conducting any serious analysis supporting its decision or providing the public an opportunity to review and comment on the technical information on which it relied.
"The Pruitt final determination was far too casual, slipshod and underexplained," said Sean Donahue, a partner at Donahue, Goldberg & Weaver who represents environmental interests.
A July EPA motion to dismiss the complaint, supported by automakers, argues that it's premature to seek judicial review of a decision to merely initiate a rule-making — before a final rule exists. No one has been harmed so far because the existing standards remain in place, so the parties have no grounds for their complaint, it said.
Challengers counter in legal briefs that the midterm review was intended to be a robust process. They question how the Trump administration could argue that the earlier review was rushed and yet take just three months to issue its own proposed rule.
Responses are due by the end of the week and a judge is expected to decide within weeks whether to dismiss the case or hear arguments on whether the revised determination is lawful.
Power companies and utilities oppose weaker fuel economy standards because efforts to reduce carbon emissions from the transport sector will likely translate into vehicle electrification, which creates business for them.
Electric car maker Tesla also is participating in the power companies' petition as a member of the National Coalition for Advanced Transportation.