NJ Sues over Federal Plan to Cut Penalty for Fuel-Economy Violations

Tom Johnson | August 5, 2019 | Energy & Environment
New Jersey joins other states seeking to stop National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from more than halving penalty on automakers that don’t meet national standards

gas pump
New Jersey once again is joining other states in challenging a Trump administration rollback of rules to weaken the penalty for violating the nation’s fuel-economy standards for cars.

In a lawsuit joined by Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, several states are seeking to stop the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from more than halving the penalty for automakers that exceed national fuel-economy standards.

The issue of the Trump administration’s efforts to drastically overhaul previous regulations to tighten fuel-economy standards in vehicles already is the subject of opposition from the states.

Last week, the Trump administration finalized a rule to reduce the penalty from $14 per tenth-of-a-mile per gallon to $5.50, a 60 percent reduction. On Friday, New Jersey joined with California, New York and other states in asking the U.S. Court of Appeals to set aside the NHTSA’s new, reduced penalty and reinstall the $14 penalty adopted under the Obama administration.

“Fuel efficiency standards are the heart of our country’s efforts to improve our air and protect us from the threat of climate change,’’ said Grewal. “But our environmental laws are only as strong as the penalties they bring. We should be doing more not less, to combat climate change.’’

NJ has aggressive goals to curb carbon pollution

The transportation sector is the biggest source of greenhouse-gas emissions contributing to climate change, not just in New Jersey, but in most of the rest of the Northeast. By most accounts, the state will not meet aggressive goals to curb carbon pollution by 2050 unless it achieves dramatic reductions in emissions from cars, trucks and other mobile sources.

The federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) standard regulates how far a fleet of vehicles must be able to travel on a gallon of fuel — in other words, their overall fuel efficiency. Many argue the fuel efficiency standards are the linchpin of the federal government’s efforts to cut vehicle emissions contributing to climate change.

“The federal government is putting the brakes on progress toward cleaner air,’’ said state Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Catherine McCabe. “Effective enforcement of federal fuel emission standards is a critical component of New Jersey’s work toward responding to climate change.’’

The dispute occurs at a time when the Trump administration is also facing a challenge to its efforts to weaken the fuel economy standard itself. The federal Environmental Protection Agency is working on a rule to freeze fleet-wide new vehicle standards at about 30 miles per gallon, at 2021 levels.

But four automakers reached agreement with California to toughen the standards beyond that proposal, causing uncertainty whether other car manufacturers will follow suit in a bid to avoid having two national standards for fuel efficiency.

New Jersey and other states already have litigation pending that challenges the federal agency’s bid to loosen the fuel-efficiency standards, as environmental groups have done. New Jersey also is a party to other challenges to administration efforts to weaken clean-air rules.