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| 3 minutes read

California’s Plans for Zero Emission Trucks are On Hold

California is waiting for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (DC Circuit) to decide whether the state can set new vehicle emissions standards that are stricter than those of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). California’s standards, which would require (i) truck retailers to sell zero-emission trucks as an increasing percentage of their annual California sales and (ii) trucking companies to report on their existing fleet operations, are part of the state’s efforts to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to zero by 2045. But, a suit by the trucking and petroleum industries, Western States Trucking Association v. EPA (Western States) (No. 23-1143), seeks to stop California from implementing its new standards. Petitioners rely on West Virginia v. EPA, 142 S. Ct. 2587 (2022) and subsequent cases where the Court has adopted the major questions doctrine. This doctrine requires a federal agency to have clear congressional authority to adopt a rule or regulation that the Court concludes could have vast economic and political significance. The major questions doctrine marks a significant departure from the Court’s previous practice to give deference (i.e. Chevron deference) to federal agencies under Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 468 U.S. 837 (1984).

The suit is pending in the DC Circuit, and will stay that way until the DC Circuit issues decisions in Texas v. EPA (Texas) (No. 22-1031) and Ohio v. EPA (22-1081).  Ohio is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court on an application for a stay (Application No. 23A349).  Because these two cases concern the EPA’s rulemaking authority and the major questions doctrine, the DC Circuit has held Western States in abeyance. Western States also concerns the EPA’s rulemaking authority, and the petitioners argue that the EPA’s waiver of its emissions standards for California to set more stringent standards raises a “major question,” cutting against the EPA’s authority to make such a waiver without a clear congressional mandate. 

Like Western States, Texas concerns an EPA rule under Section 202(a) of the Clean Air Act. That section tasks the agency with, among other things, setting GHG emissions standards for mobile pollution sources, like vehicles. The rule for Texas allows the state to set stricter GHG emissions standards than the EPA’s standards that were in effect during the Trump Administration. It applies to light-duty vehicles with model years between 2023 and 2026. 

The petitioners argue that the EPA’s rulemaking is unlawful under the major questions doctrine because its decision has vast economic and political implications without congressional approval. The industry groups and the states that support them say that the “EPA lacks statutory authority to set greenhouse-gas emission standards that effectively mandate electric vehicles.” The respondent contends that the major questions doctrine does not apply because this is not an extraordinary case since “[f]ar from doing something unexpected or novel, EPA merely tightened existing standards.” The DC Circuit heard oral arguments in September 2023.

Oral arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court for the stay application in Ohio are set for February 21, 2024. That case concerns the “friendly neighbor” provision of the Clean Air Act. This provision requires states to control their major pollution sources so that they don’t cause neighboring or downwind states to exceed the National Ambient Air Quality Standards from out-of-state pollution. However, the issue won’t be whether the friendly neighbor provision is unconstitutional under the major questions doctrine. Rather, the issue will be whether the Court should stay implementation of the provision until the DC Circuit, where the case originated, decides that substantive issue. 

The posture of this case is somewhat unusual for a decision that has the potential to affect dozens of states and the health of their residents. Ohio is a “shadow docket” case, meaning that it comes before the Court as a procedural request and not a merits-based request. If the Court issues a stay, upwind states can continue to pollute downwind states beyond their National Ambient Air Quality Standards unless the DC Circuit upholds the friendly neighbor provision after what would surely be extensive litigation and appeals.     

All three cases – Western States, Texas, and Ohio – have broader implications for the deference courts should give to rulemaking and decisions by administrative agencies under Chevron v. NRDC.  It’s likely no coincidence that the lawyers for the Ohio petitioners and the Texas petitioners are the same ones that prevailed in West Virginia v. EPA, which signaled the Court’s departure from Chevron and turned a critical focus on the so-called “administrative state.” When Texas and Ohio are decided, there may not be much of Chevron left to assist the EPA in Western States and help California keep its strict regulations to lower and, ultimately, eliminate GHG emissions. 

Co-authored by Casey A. Loosbrock

“A stay of the [EPA’s “good neighbor] plan could allow upwind states to emit approximately 70,000 additional tons of smog-creating nitrous oxide by the peak of the 2026 summertime ozone season, causing up to 1,300 premature deaths and increased hospital visits for thousands of Americans with asthma or other respiratory problems each year.”


major questions doctrine, ghg emissions, epa, us supreme court, esg