Court orders tougher fuel economy standards on light trucks

Saying that the federal government failed to consider the benefits of reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled Thursday, Nov. 15, that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration must go back to the drawing board and develop new corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards for light trucks.

The appeals court also concluded that NHTSA’s environmental assessment of its April 2006 rule was inadequate and that the agency now must prepare a full environmental impact statement.

Eleven states, the District of Columbia, the City of New York along with Public Citizen, Environmental Defense, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club challenged NHTSA’s fuel economy standards as too weak. Placing a monetary value on CO2 reductions would have justified more stringent standards, they argued.

The states and public interest groups also contended that the new standards should have guaranteed a minimum average fuel economy, not one that varied according to a manufacturer’s fleet mix. They further challenged the rule because it fails to close the so-called “SUV loophole” that allows sport utility vehicles, minivans and pickup trucks to satisfy a lower fuel economy standard than cars.

One contention of particular concern to commercial operators was that the new standards should not exclude most vehicles rated between 8,500 and 10,000 pounds gross vehicle weight from any fuel economy regulation, even though these vehicles satisfy the statutory criteria for regulation.

In a 90-page decision, the court sided with the states and interest groups on each of those points. It ordered NHTSA to issue new standards “as expeditiously as possible and for the earliest model year practicable.” The appeals court did not, however, throw out the current standards, which remain in place until the new standards are issued.

For a copy of the Ninth Circuit decision, click here.