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Court Rejects Weak Bush Rule on Fuel Economy for Light Trucks

Nov. 15, 2007

Court Rejects Weak Bush Rule on Fuel Economy for Light Trucks

Ninth Circuit Ruling Is Major Win for Consumers, Environment

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Consumers and the environment both scored a tremendous victory today when a federal court threw out the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) rule on the fuel economy of light trucks – a category that includes SUVs, minivans and pick-up trucks.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of consumer and environmental groups that challenged the Bush administration’s 2006 fuel economy regulation for light trucks. The groups argued that the administration’s increased fuel economy standard was unacceptably paltry in view of what manufacturers can do to increase fuel economy and what the government can do to decrease the impact of large vehicles on global warming.

“The ruling is a strong rebuke to the Bush administration, which has been missing in action on both global warming and vehicle fuel economy,” said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen. Claybrook was head of NHTSA when the agency issued the first fuel economy standards in the 1970s. “NHTSA’s light truck rule missed out on critical opportunities to decrease our dependence on oil, save money at the pump and reduce carbon emissions – and the court agreed that more must be done.”

The petitioners, which included Public Citizen, Sierra Club, Environmental Defense, Natural Resources Defense Council, 11 states and the District of Columbia, argued that the rule was arbitrary and capricious for a number of reasons, including its failure to close “the SUV loophole” that allows far laxer standards for light trucks than for cars. The Ninth Circuit agreed with most of the groups’ arguments, sending the final rule back to the agency for reconsideration and issuance of an improved – and legal – standard as quickly as possible.

Specifically, the court held that the rule was contrary to law because it: 1) failed to adequately consider the reduction of carbon emissions from vehicles; 2) failed to close the SUV loophole; and 3) failed to apply any fuel economy standards to vehicles between 8,500 and 10,000 pounds.

The court also held that it was arbitrary for NHTSA to create a sliding scale for light trucks, in which fuel economy standards vary by the size of the vehicle, without any “backstop” – a measure needed to ensure that the Bush administration’s sliding scale would not result in a downward slide in actual vehicle fuel economy as manufacturers game the standards and produce more large vehicles over time. Public Citizen recently exposed the behind-the-scenes meetings that led to the development of the sliding scale approach, revealing that senior-level White House officials, including staff of Vice President Dick Cheney, strong-armed the Department of Transportation into adopting that approach.

In addition, the court found that NHTSA should have conducted a full environmental impact statement to measure the consequences of its rule and ordered that one be completed.

“This victory should spark some serious reconsideration in Congress,” Claybrook said.   “While gas prices increase, this is no time for Congress to dither over the weak fuel economy proposal in the Senate’s energy bill that would, among other things, mandate the Cheney sliding scale approach without a backstop – a scenario the court threw out. Americans are rightly growing impatient with half-measures.”

Added Robert Shull, deputy director of auto safety and regulatory policy, “We urge the agency, as it moves forward to issue a new rule, to do something substantial that truly improves vehicle fuel economy. With 60 percent of domestic oil consumption related to transportation, no global warming priority should be more important.”  

READ the court’s ruling.

READ Public Citizen’s report on the sliding scale.