Court rules against Trump administration’s delay on car efficiency fines

Court rules against Trump administration’s delay on car efficiency fines
© Greg Nash

A federal appeals court ruled Monday that the Trump administration cannot delay a regulation that increased automakers’ fines for cars that violate fuel efficiency standards.

In a brief order that did not explain its reasoning, the New York City-based 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a July action by the Department of Transportation (DOT) that indefinitely delayed the increased penalties under the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) program.

The three-judge panel of the court said it would issue a fully explained opinion “in due course.”

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The decision is the latest in a string of court defeats in the Trump administration’s attempts to roll back or delay various Obama administration environmental efforts, including in methane emissions, energy efficiency and other areas.

“The fuel efficiency standards penalty rule is a common sense measure that would protect consumers’ pocketbooks while reducing the carbon emissions that harm our health and drive climate change,” New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D), who participated in the lawsuit that led to the ruling, said in a statement.

“Today’s court order is a big win for New Yorkers’ and all Americans’ health and environment. As we’ve proven again and again, when the Trump administration puts special interests before public health and our environment, we’ll take them to court — and we will win.”

Congress in 2015 instructed federal agencies to adjust fines and penalties to account for inflation.

That spurred the DOT’s National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) to, in 2016, increase automakers’ fines under CAFE to $14 for each 0.1 mile per gallon that each car they sell exceeds the standards, up from $5.50.

Automaker groups asked the DOT to reconsider the increases, saying they would cost $1 billion and that falling fuel costs are making it harder for companies to sell enough efficient cars to meet the standards.

The DOT last year agreed to review the rule and decided to indefinitely postpone it in the meantime. The increased penalties were due to take effect for the 2019 model year, so the agency reasoned that automakers need a longer lead time to adjust to a new regulation.

Democratic state attorneys general and environmentalists sued, arguing that the DOT didn’t have the legal authority for an indefinite postponement.

The Trump administration told the court that the lawsuit was premature, since the DOT had not taken final action.

“When NHTSA announced that reconsideration in July 2017, the agency simultaneously announced that it was delaying the effective date of the earlier rule while the reconsideration was ongoing,” Justice Department attorneys wrote.

“The delay decision was merely an interim step in NHTSA’s continuing review of issues concerning the civil penalty rate applicable to future violations of CAFE standards for certain motor vehicles.”

The objections, the administration argued, “can be presented to the agency, and to a court in an appropriate case after the reconsideration is complete.”

The DOT proposed in March to completely scrap the Obama administration’s increased fines, arguing that the CAFE penalties are not covered by the 2015 law at issue.

Additionally, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight Energy: Court rejects new effort to stop kids' climate lawsuit | Baltimore is latest city to sue over climate change | EPA staffers worried about toxic chemical in Pruitt's desk Pruitt staffers worried about toxic chemical in his desk Andrew Wheeler must reverse damage to American heartland MORE formally ruled earlier this month that greenhouse gas emissions rules for cars are too strict and should be eased.

The EPA’s emissions rules program is operated jointly with the DOT’s efficiency standards.