Judges scrutinize Obama-era truck trailer emissions rule

By Alex Guillén 09/15/2020 01:45 PM EDT

A panel of federal judges struggled in a court hearing on Tuesday with questions over whether the federal government can set fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions limits for truck trailers separately from the tractor cabs that pull them.

The Obama administration issued the first-ever fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions rules in 2016 for trailer manufacturers who make the cargo-hauling containers connected to tractor cabs as part of its broader regulation (Reg. 2060-AS16) phasing in more stringent climate change emissions rules for heavy- duty trucks.

The Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association sued over the requirements, arguing that the government cannot regulate trailers since they are not vehicles. The court stayed the EPA portion of the rule as it was set to take effect in 2018 and put the case on hold for several years while the Trump administration reconsidered the rule. But with no action from the government and with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration fuel economy portion of the rule slated to take effect in January, the industry revived its challenge.

The drag from trailers contributes to about one-third of a truck’s emissions, and so the agencies required manufacturers to add aerodynamic devices, reduce trailers’ weight or use other technologies to reduce emissions and improve fuel efficiency.

Elisabeth Theodore, representing TTMA, said the industry argument is simple: Trailers are not self- propelled, have no engines and emit no pollution, so they are beyond EPA’s regulatory reach.

“No one would say that Goodyear Tire Company is engaged in manufacturing vehicles just because it makes tires and tires go on vehicles,” she said. Trailers are effectively auto components that are not regulated for emissions, she added.

But two of the three judges from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals said that tractors and trailers are designed to work together, which could effectively make them a single vehicle and open the trailer manufacturers up to regulation.

Judge Merrick Garland questioned whether the connection of a trailer to a tractor amounts to the incorporation of an engine into a vehicle and noted that the law gives EPA authority to regulate assembly of new vehicles.

Meanwhile, Judge Patricia Millett argued that tractors and trailers typically operate together.

“That’s how they function, together. If I’m driving by a semi-truck, I don’t think I’m going just by the tractor. I’m going by the combination of the two,” she said. But Millett also noted that tractors can drive on roads without hauling a trailer, meaning it would on its own qualify as a vehicle subject to regulation, not just when hauling a trailer.page1image18029120

The Trump administration, in a rare instance where it is defending an Obama-era climate regulation, said rules treating the the trailer and tractors as one unit were proper.

“The key point is that the agency understood its authority to cover the tractor-trailer when both parts are designed to work together. Both manufacturers can be subject to those regulations,” said Justice Department attorney Thomas Byron.

The judges also probed whether the NHTSA fuel economy requirements could stand on their own if the court strikes down just EPA’s emissions rules for trailers.

“Let’s say that we find the EPA didn’t have authority to do this but let’s say we find that NHTSA did,” said Judge Justin Walker, in his inaugural appearance on the D.C. Circuit’s bench. Would the NHTSA fuel economy rules be able to stand on their own, he asked.

“I just don’t know how the regulation could possibly function” if the EPA portion is struck down since NHTSA relies on EPA’s testing to ensure compliance with its fuel economy rules, Theodore replied.

But Byron, the government attorney, argued that if the court struck down EPA’s emissions limits but left in place NHTSA’s fuel economy requirements for trailers, it could still allow EPA to play a compliance role for those NHTSA standards given the agency’s expertise in testing.

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