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Why it Matters
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in the Department of Transportation has set fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks since 1975. In a separate but related process, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued greenhouse gas emission standards for vehicles since 2010. Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas sources in the U.S., contributing more than electricity sector. Improving the fuel economy of cars and trucks saves consumers money on gas and lowers emissions; a rollback of standards increases fuel costs, air pollution and worsens climate change and public health outcomes. Our full overview of the standards and rollback is available here.
Listen to our CleanLaw podcasts on the rollback of these standards:
- Caitlin McCoy & Michelle Melton on the history and details of the proposed rules, as well as relevant litigation.
- Joe Goffman & Bill Becker on the possible effects on public health, state Clean Air Act compliance, and other industries if the proposed rules are adopted.
- Caitlin McCoy & Joe Goffman on the final rule in which NHTSA preempts California’s standards and all ZEV programs, and EPA revokes California’s waiver.
On Sep. 27, 2019, EPA and NHTSA published a final rule, the Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule Part One: One National Program. In the final rule, NHTSA determined that California’s GHG standards and Zero Emission Vehicle program were preempted under the Energy Policy & Conservation Act and withdrew California’s waiver. EPA also determined that other states could not adopt California’s GHG standards based on a new interpretation of section 177 of the Clean Air Act as not including GHGs. On March 31, 2020, EPA and NHTSA published a second final rule, the Safer Affordable Fuel–Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule for Model Years 2021-2026 Passenger Cars and Light Trucks, with revised CAFE and GHG standards that increase in stringency 1.5% each year, down from 5% each year under the Obama-era standards.
On his first day in office, President Biden targeted both these rules in an Executive Order, requiring NHTSA and EPA to consider publishing a proposed rule revising, suspending, or rescinding the SAFE Vehicles Rule Part One (84 Fed. Reg. 51310) by April 2021, and the SAFE Vehicles Rule for Model Years 2021-2026 (85 Fed. Reg. 24174) by July 2021. The order recommends EPA consult with labor unions, States, and industry in making its determination. On Feb. 8, 2021, the DC Circuit granted a request from EPA and NHTSA to stay consolidated cases concerning the One National Program, and granted a similar order on Apr. 2, 2021 to stay consolidated cases concerning Part II of the SAFE Vehicles Rule. EPA is expected to issue a proposed rule with new clean car standards in July, 2021.
Oct. 15, 2012 EPA publishes a final rule setting greenhouse gas standards for passenger cars, for model years 2017-2025, and NHTSA set fuel economy standards for 2017-2021 and forecast standards for 2022-2025. The standards feature an average annual increase in efficiency of about 5% to reach a fuel efficiency average of 46.7 miles per gallon fleetwide by 2025.
Jan. 12, 2017 EPA Administrator McCarthy issues a Final Determination that the 2022-2025 greenhouse gas standards remain appropriate and should not change. This represents the end of the Mid-term Evaluation of the standards.
March 13, 2017 The Alliance of Auto Manufacturers petitions for review of EPA’s Final Determination on the greenhouse gas standards in the DC Circuit.
March 20, 2017 The Alliance of Auto Manufacturers withdraws its petition.
March 22, 2017 EPA publishes notice of its intent to reconsider the Final Determination on the greenhouse gas standards. EPA states it will make a new determination by April 1, 2018.
July 26, 2017 NHTSA publishes a notice of intent to conduct an environmental impact statement, a preliminary step toward setting 2022-2025 CAFE standards.
August 21, 2017 EPA opens a comment period for the reconsideration of the Final Determination on the 2022-2025 greenhouse gas standards. The comment period is open until October 5, 2017.
April 2, 2018 EPA announces it has completed a new Mid-term Evaluation of greenhouse gas standards for cars and light-duty truck and concludes that “…the current standards are not appropriate and should be revised.”
April 13, 2018 EPA publishes the revised determination of the Mid-term Evaluation, finding that the Obama-era rule “…presents challenges for auto manufacturers due to feasibility and practicability…” and finding the “…GHG emission standards are not appropriate and, therefore, should be revised as appropriate.”
May 1, 2018 A coalition of states, cities, and counties, led by California, sue EPA over its revised determination of the Mid-term Evaluation. State of California v. EPA, No. 18-01114 (D.C. Cir.). According to HLS Professor Jody Freeman, “This is a preliminary challenge. It’s a shot across the bow. It sets the table to challenge the agency’s reasons for rolling back the rule, if they go ahead and do it.”
May 3, 2018 The National Coalition for Advanced Transportation, a coalition of utilities and automaker Tesla, sues EPA over its new Mid-Term Evaluation determination.
May 7, 2018 The California Air Resources Board (CARB) issues a request for public input while it considers “options to best ensure that the greenhouse gas (GHG) emission benefits in California from the current national program and California’s light-duty vehicle GHG regulation are maintained.” California is preparing to only accept cars that meet the Obama-era rules, even if the Trump administration succeeds in rolling back those standards.
May 16, 2018 A coalition of environmental groups sues EPA, challenging its revised determination of the Mid-term Evaluation finding the standards “not appropriate” and re-opening the standard-setting process.
May 30, 2018 NHTSA sends its proposed rule to set revised fuel economy standards to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review.
May 31, 2018 EPA sends its proposed rule to revise greenhouse gas emissions standards to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review.
July 10, 2018 EPA files a motion to dismiss the case filed by the states, the National Coalition for Advanced Transportation and environmental groups, which are all consolidated in the DC Circuit. EPA argues that the revised determination is not a final agency action which can undergo judicial review and it is too early to challenge the action (it is not “ripe” for review) so the parties should wait to challenge a final rule if and when one is issued. State of California v. EPA, No. 18-01114 (D.C. Cir.).
Aug. 2, 2018 EPA and NHTSA release new proposed standards for greenhouse gas emissions and fuel economy. The agencies propose maintaining the CAFE and CO2 standards applicable in model year 2020 for model years 2021-2026. The agencies propose withdrawing the permission granted to California to set its own greenhouse gas emissions standards, which a dozen other states also use.
Aug. 24, 2018 The Federal Register publishes the Trump administration’s proposed fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions standards for cars and light trucks. The comment period is open through October 23, 2018, and people can comment on a wide range of alternatives, including retaining existing CO2 standards and CAFE standards.
Sep. 24–26, 2018 NHTSA and EPA jointly hold three public hearings on the proposed standards: September 24 in Fresno, California; September 25 in Dearborn, Michigan; September 26 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Aug. 8, 2018 The California Air Resources Board (CARB) proposes its own rule change in order to maintain Obama-era emissions for cars and light-duty trucks for model years 2021-2025. The California rule change stipulates that California will accept an emissions test covering both federal and state standards, but only if the federal standards are not weaker than California’s standards.
Oct. 23, 2018 The comment period for the proposed rules closes. Submitted comments may be viewed on regulations.gov.
Nov. 21, 2018 The DC Circuit requires briefing from all parties on EPA’s request to dismiss the May 2018 lawsuit challenging the EPA’s revised determination, reopening consideration of the CAFE and GHG standards. [This entry was corrected on April 15th, 2019]. State of California v. EPA, No. 18-01114 (D.C. Cir.).
Jan. 16, 2019 Acting EPA Administrator Wheeler says that the final rule will increase fuel efficiency standards for vehicles by 0.5% a year during his Senate confirmation hearing.
Feb. 5, 2019 Congresswoman Doris Matsui of California introduces legislation to codify the Obama-era clean car standards, protecting them from rollback. The “Clean and Efficient Cars Act” would codify the greenhouse gas and CAFE standards for model years 2021 to 2025.
March 11, 2019 Administrator Wheeler says that the rules would not be finalized by the end of March, as previously stated, but would be delayed. He also confirms that EPA is still planning to revoke California’s Clean Air Act waiver.
June 6, 2019 Seventeen auto companies, including Ford, General Motors, Toyota and Volvo, send a letter to President Trump requesting vehicle rules that are supported by California to avoid the uncertainty that would result if the federal government adopts rules that will undoubtedly be challenged by California and the section 177 states that follow California’s standards. The same group also sent a letter to California Governor Gavin Newsom, stating that the industry would like to compromise with final rules between the Obama-era standards and the standards proposed under the Trump administration.
July 25, 2019 California and four automakers (Ford, BMW, VW, and Honda) announce they have reached an agreement on compromise standards where requirements would increase an average of 3.7% annually starting for the 2022 model year through 2026 with 1% of that rate eligible to be achieved with electric vehicle credits.
Aug. 6, 2019 Thirty senators send letters urging 14 automakers to join the agreement with California that Ford, BMW, VW, and Honda announced in July.
Aug. 20, 2019 Mercedes-Benz is said to be preparing to join the California agreement, as well as another company – either Toyota, Fiat Chrysler or General Motors. Together, the six manufacturers who will be part of the CA agreement account for more than 40% of all cars sold in the US.
Sep. 19, 2019 EPA and NHTSA release a final rule, The Safer Affordable Fuel–Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule Part One: One National Program. In the final rule, NHTSA determines that California’s GHG standards and Zero Emission Vehicle program are preempted under Energy Policy & Conservation Act. EPA withdraws California’s waiver due to NHTSA’s determination and because EPA has determined California does not have “compelling and extraordinary conditions” to justify a waiver, as it now interprets the Clean Air Act. EPA also determines that other states cannot adopt California’s GHG standards because EPA now interprets section 177 of the Clean Air Act as not including GHGs. The final rule is published in the Federal Register on Sep. 27, 2019 and effective Nov. 26, 2019.
Sep. 20, 2019 California files a lawsuit against NHTSA for its determination that California’s GHG standards and Zero Emission Vehicle program are preempted by Energy Policy & Conservation Act. California is leading a coalition of 23 states, the District of Columbia, and two cities in this case. State of California v. Chao, No. 1:19-cv-02826-KBJ (D.D.C.).
Sep. 25, 2019 Minnesota and New Mexico announce that they will adopt California’s clean car standards, despite NHTSA and EPA’s recent moves to deprive California of its standards and disallow other states from following California’s GHG standards.
Sep. 27, 2019 Nine environmental organizations file a complaint against NHTSA in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia challenging NHTSA’s determination as beyond its authority, among other claims. EDF v. Chao, No. 1:19-cv-2907 (D.D.C.).
Oct. 25, 2019 The DC Circuit dismisses the case challenging EPA’s decision to re-open the rulemaking process “[b]ecause the Revised Determination neither determines rights or obligations or imposes any legal consequences, nor alters the baseline upon which any departure from the currently effective 2012 emission standards must be explained, the Revised Determination is not judicially reviewable final action….” State of California v. EPA, No. 18-01114 (D.C. Cir.).
Oct. 28, 2019 A coalition of environmental organizations files a case against NHTSA in the DC Circuit. Union of Concerned Scientists v. NHTSA, No. 19-1230 (D.C. Cir.).
Nov. 15, 2019 California files a lawsuit against EPA for revocation of California’s waiver under the Clean Air Act, leading a coalition of 22 states, two cities, and the District of Columbia. California v. Wheeler, No. 19-1239 (D.C. Cir.). Several regional California air districts file a similar challenge against EPA in the D.C. Circuit. South Coast Air Quality Mgmt. v. EPA, No. 19-01241. EPA filed a motion to expedite the case on Dec. 18, 2019 and California filed a motion to hold the case in abeyance until part two of the Safer Affordable Fuel–Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule is finalized and the case against NHTSA in the D.C. District Court is resolved. The court denied both the request to expedite and the request for abeyance on Feb. 4, 2020. The case will proceed normally.
Dec. 31, 2019 EPA’s Science Advisory Board releases a draft report that identifies flaws in the proposed rules’ analysis, like how car sales and turnover rates would be affected by various fuel economy and emissions standards. The board said the Obama-era standards “might provide a better outcome for society than the proposed revision….” The draft report and the issues it raises will be discussed in the Science Advisory Board’s January 2020 meeting.
Jan. 14, 2020 EPA and NHTSA send the second part of the Safer Affordable Fuel–Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule to the Office of Management and Budget for review. This final rule contains the fuel economy and GHG emissions standards for model years 2021-2026 for passenger cars and light trucks.
Feb. 11, 2020 The D.C. District Court issues a stay, pausing California’s case against NHTSA until the related case against EPA in the D.C. Circuit is resolved: State of California v. Chao, No. 1:19-cv-02826-KBJ (D.D.C.).Union of Concerned Scientists v. NHTSA, No. 19-1230 (D.C. Cir.).
Feb. 27, 2020 EPA’s Science Advisory Board releases its final report on the Safer Affordable Fuel–Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule, which discusses “…significant weaknesses in the scientific analysis of the proposed rule” and the Board’s recommendations to strengthen the science supporting the rule.
March 31, 2020 EPA and NHTSA release a final rule, the Safer Affordable Fuel–Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule for Model Years 2021-2026 Passenger Cars and Light Trucks. This final rule contains the revised CAFE and GHG standards which increase in stringency 1.5% each year, down from 5% each year under the Obama-era standards. It is published in the Federal Register on April 30, 2020 and effective on June 29, 2020.
March 31, 2020 California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols announces that Volvo is negotiating with the state to join the California Agreement. Volvo would become the fifth automaker to join the agreement alongside Ford, BMW, VW, and Honda.
April 1, 2020 U.S. Court of Appeals of the Second Circuit rules in favor of EDF and NRDC, granting them access to an emissions model used in creating the new SAFE Vehicles Rule. The decision reverses a lower court decision that ruled in favor of EPA allowing it to keep the model confidential according to the deliberative process privilege.
May 1, 2020 The Competitive Enterprise Institute challenges Part II of the SAFE Vehicles Rule in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, alleging “…the agencies failed to adequately consider the adverse traffic safety impacts of their chosen fuel economy standards.” Competitive Enter. Inst. v. NHTSA, No. 20-01145 (D.C. Cir.).
May 15, 2020 The California Air Resources Board files a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against EPA and NHTSA for not turning over documents related to the SAFE Vehicles Rules. The Air Resources Board is seeking information that supports the agencies’ conclusion that preempting California’s standards would not impact criteria pollutant emissions or prevent California from meeting Clean Air Act standards. Cal. Air Resources Board v EPA, No. 1:20-cv-01293 (D.D.C.).
May 22, 2020 The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, an auto industry trade group, files a request to intervene in the case filed by the Competitive Enterprise Institute because the “…challenge seeks to overturn the agencies’ standards that properly balance improvement in fuel economy and GHG emissions performance…[and] therefore conflicts with Auto Innovators’ substantial interest in ensuring that increases in the stringency of GHG and CAFE standards are implemented in a reasonable and steady manner, and would set back efforts to address climate change and achieve greater energy independence.” Competitive Enter. Inst. v. NHTSA, No. 20-01145 (D.C. Cir.).
May 27, 2020 California leads a coalition of 23 states, cities, and local entities to file a challenge to the SAFE Vehicles Rule in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. California v. Wheeler, No. 20-01167 (D.C. Cir.).
May 27, 2020 A coalition of 12 environmental groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, and Environmental Defense Fund file a challenge to the SAFE Vehicles Rule in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Petitions for review available here. EDF v. Owens, No. 20-01169 (D.C. Cir.). Center for Biological Diversity v. Wheeler, No. 20-01178 (D.C. Cir.).
May 28, 2020 A coalition of power companies including Calpine, Consolidated Edison, National Grid USA, New York Power Authority, Power Companies Climate Coalition, and the National Coalition for Advanced Transportation file challenges to the SAFE Vehicles Rule. Calpine Corp. v. EPA, No. 20-01177 (D.C. Cir.). Nat’l Coal. for Advanced Transp. v. EPA, No. 20-01174, No. 20-01175 (D.C. Cir.)
May 29, 2020 A group of 20 states, two cities and three local air quality regulators request to intervene in the case filed by the Competitive Enterprise Institute in order to support EPA and NHTSA’s authority to regulate fuel economy and GHG emissions. Competitive Enter. Inst. v. NHTSA, No. 20-01145 (D.C. Cir.).
June 22, 2020 Nevada announces it is drafting regulations to adopt California’s clean car standards. To date, 14 states and the District of Columbia have adopted California’s more ambitious standards, and Minnesota and New Mexico are in the process of writing regulations that will make them the 15th and 16th states.
June 26, 2020 Ford, Volkswagen, Honda and BMW file a motion to intervene in the challenge against the final CAFE and GHG emissions standards in the D.C. Circuit. These four automakers have joined the California Agreement, but they are remaining neutral- they are not siding with California and the challengers. They are splitting from their trade group, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which has sided with the administration. Their petition to intervene explains that they do not take a position on the arguments being raised, but seek to protect their interests and “ensure that any remedy imposed by this Court is both appropriate and achievable.” California v. Wheeler, No. 20-01167 (D.C. Cir.). Calpine Corp. v. EPA, No. 20-01177 (D.C. Cir.).
July 13, 2020 The House Transportation and Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee releases a report that directs NHTSA to develop a new model for the vehicle sales market used for the SAFE Vehicles Rule because “…the Committee finds a number of economic assumptions that were included in the modeling implausible and is deeply alarmed that the rule did not pass a reasonable cost-benefit analysis.”
Aug. 17, 2020 California announces its final, voluntary Framework Agreements on Clean Cars with five automakers, BMW of North America, Ford, Honda, Volkswagen Group of America, and Volvo. The automakers will produce cars and trucks through 2026 with about the same rates of efficiency as the former Obama-era standards, preventing hundreds of millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions.
Sep. 23, 2020 California Governor Gavin Newsom signs an executive order directing the California Air Resource Board to create regulations “requiring increasing volumes of new zero-emission vehicles sold in the State towards the target of 100 percent of in-state sales by 2035.” Whether California can implement these regulations in the future depends on the outcome of the pending litigation or a new administration taking office.
Nov. 23, 2020 General Motors announces that it will withdraw from the litigation on the Part One Rule. GM had intervened in support of the Trump administration, but in a letter to environmental groups, GM CEO Mary Barra writes that she is excited to work with President-elect Biden on a national standard and options to expand vehicle electrification.
Dec. 21, 2020 The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency publishes a notice of its intent to adopt California’s clean car standards.
Early Biden Actions
Jan. 20, 2021 President Biden issues an Executive Order requiring NHTSA and EPA to consider publishing a proposed rule revising, suspending, or rescinding the SAFE Vehicles Rule Part One (84 Fed. Reg. 51310) by April 2021, and the SAFE Vehicles Rule for Model Years 2021-2026 (85 Fed. Reg. 24174) by July 2021. The order recommends EPA consult with labor unions, States, and industry in making its determination.
Feb. 1, 2021 EPA and NHTSA move to hold the consolidated cases concerning the One Federal Program in abeyance until the agencies have completed their review pursuant to Biden’s Executive Order. Union of Concerned Scientists v. NHTSA, No. 19-1230 (DC Cir.).
Feb. 8, 2021 The DC Circuit grants a request from EPA and NHTSA to hold the consolidated cases concerning the One National Program in abeyance until the government’s review of the rule is complete. Under the court order, the government must submit updates on its review every 90 days. Union of Concerned Scientists, et al., v. NHTSA, No. 19-1230 (D.C. Cir.) (consolidated with Nos. 19-1239, 19-1241, 19-1242, 19-1243, 19-1245, 19-1246, 19-1249, 20-1175, 20-1178).
Feb. 19, 2021 The Virginia legislature passes a bill to adopt California’s GHG and zero-emission vehicle standards.
April 2, 2021 The D.C. Circuit grants the Biden administration’s request to stay litigation over Part II of the SAFE Vehicles Rule. Competitive Enter. Inst. v. NHTSA, No. 20-01145 (D.C. Cir.). EPA is expected to issue a proposed rule with new clean car standards in July.
April 20, 2021 EPA’s Office of Inspector General releases a new report finding that in developing Part I of the SAFE Vehicles Rule, Administrator Pruitt sidelined EPA’s air emissions experts, failed to comply with EPA’s own rulemaking processes, and ignored environmental justice concerns, all of which “undercut the joint character of the rulemaking.”
April 20, 2021 The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) completes its review of NHTSA’s proposed rule revoking the Trump administration’s interpretation that national fuel economy standards set under EPCA preempt California’s Clean Air Act waiver.
April 28, 2021 EPA publishes a Notice of Opportunity for Public Hearing and Comment, seeking comment on its proposal to reconsider the Trump administration’s withdrawal of California’s waiver. In the notice, EPA points to “significant issues regarding whether SAFE 1 was a valid and appropriate exercise of agency authority.” Comments must be received by July 6, 2021.