Our Opinion: State joins fight to protect air standards

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Scott Pruitt, who as attorney general of Oklahoma sued the Environmental Protection Agency 14 times and described himself as "a leading advocate against the EPA's 'activist agenda,'" is now its administrator. A suit filed Wednesday in the D.C. Court of Appeals by a coalition of 17 states (of which Vermont and Massachusetts are co-plaintiffs) would protect that agenda from political predation. The suit seeks to prevent Mr. Pruitt from diluting (or trashing altogether) Obama-era auto emissions and fuel economy standards that aim to double the average fuel economy for vehicles in the model years 2022-2025, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 450 million metric tons, and save drivers $1,650 per vehicle, according to Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey's office. In a statement, Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan explained his reasoning for joining the suit: “Vermonters want and deserve clean air. These standards are key points in the fight against climate change. They help save consumers money on fuel."

Mr. Pruitt is a political creature of his home state's oil and gas industry, so the premise upon which the suit is based — that his prospective rollback is arbitrary and not based on scientific or other supporting evidence — is reinforced by his decision to act first and present his so-called rationale after. As Jody Freeman, a professor of environmental law at Harvard University told The New York Times, "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."

The combined plaintiffs in the suit represent the interests of 140 million people and an estimated 36 to 43 percent of the nation's car market, and is led by California because that formerly smog-choked state has traditionally enacted strict laws regarding fuel economy and emissions. Because of the sheer size of its auto market, California, which has operated for decades under a federal waiver exempting it from looser federal standards, has in effect compelled automakers to conform nationally to its own rules. Twelve other states, including Vermont and Massachusetts, model their own auto mileage and emissions standards after California's.

Automakers have expressed mixed feelings about the suit. While on the one hand, they are skeptical of environmental regulations because they tend to drive up vehicle costs, on the other they welcome stability, which enables them to plan manufacturing investment years in advance. As Ford's executive chairman, Bill Ford, told The New York Times, "We support increasing clean car standards through 2025 and are not asking for a rollback." Automakers, in fact, were well on the way to fulfilling the Obama regulations' goals when Mr. Pruitt began to cast doubt on their future. The outcome they wish to avoid would be a court decision establishing tiered standards, wherein one set of rules would apply for cars sold in the victorious plaintiff states and another would be set for those not included in the suit. While California's current exempt status is not at issue here, environmentalists rightly worry that Mr. Pruitt's pending looser emission and mileage standards might provide a pretext for eliminating it.

"Vermont is already experiencing harmful effects of climate change, this includes increasingly frequent severe storms with heavy rainfall and resulting flooding," a statement from Mr. Donovan's office reads. "Nationally, and in Vermont, the transportation sector is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing light-duty vehicle greenhouse gas emissions is critical to achieving Vermont’s statutory goal of achieving a 75 percent reduction from 1990 levels."

As recently as last year, the EPA determined that the Obama-era standards were appropriate based on the data collected. Part of the suit demands that the EPA follow its own regulations, finalized in January 2017, which seems like a reasonable request.

As Mr. Donovan said last Tuesday when announcing Vermont's joining of the suit, "For years, Vermont has been a leader on motor vehicle emission standards and let me be clear: Vermont is going to stay committed to clean air and we will take necessary steps to fight this rollback.” Ironically, this combined legal action is the assertion of states' rights in its purest form — a conservative principle that Mr. Pruitt may come to rue.


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