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Union of Concerned Scientists v. NHTSA; Sierra Club v. EPA

In September 2019, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) jointly issued a set of actions purporting to preempt California’s greenhouse-gas emissions standards and zero-emission vehicle standards for cars and light trucks and to prevent other states from adopting those standards. The California standards had previously received a waiver under the Clean Air Act allowing California to enforce them and other states to adopt them. In the September 2020 actions, NHTSA promulgated a rule providing that the preemption provision of the Energy Policy and Conservation Act (EPCA), which authorizes NHTSA to set fuel-economy standards that preempt state fuel-economy standards, also preempts state greenhouse-gas emissions standards and zero-emission vehicle requirements. EPA, meanwhile, withdrew its Clean Air Act waiver for the California standards, based in part on the NHTSA rule, and also purported to bar other states from adopting the California standard.

Public Citizen and other public interest groups filed petitions for review in the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit challenging the NHTSA and EPA actions. Separately, California and other state and local governments filed petitions for review in the same court, as well as some industry petitioners with interests in clean-car technology. The challengers also brought separate lawsuits challenging the NHTSA rule in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, arguing that that court had original jurisdiction to review NHTSA’s action. The D.C. Circuit, however, declined to defer briefing pending the district court’s consideration of whether it had jurisdiction, and directed the parties to brief the merits as well as the issue of jurisdiction over NHTSA’s action.

The public interest petitioners filed a joint brief with the state and local government challengers. The brief explains that the Clean Air Act does not authorize withdrawal of a waiver of California emissions standards and that EPA’s reasons for withdrawing the waiver are arbitrary and capricious and contrary to law. As to EPA’s action purporting to negate other states’ adoption of California standards, the brief argues that the Clean Air Act gives states meeting certain criteria the right to adopt California’s standards, without EPA’s approval. With respect to the NHTSA rule, the brief points out that the statute giving courts of appeals direct review authority over certain NHTSA actions (such as the promulgation of fuel efficiency standards) does not cover the preemption rule. On the merits, the brief argues that NHTSA has no rulemaking authority with respect to preemption, and that EPCA’s preemption provision does not apply to emissions standards for which a state has received a Clean Air Act waiver.

After briefing was completed in the case, the incoming Biden Administration announced that it would reconsider the waiver revocation. This case was then held in abeyance pending that action. EPA subsequently withdrew the action revoking California’s waiver and reinstated the waiver, and the parties later stipulated to voluntarily dismiss the case.