Environmental Law Clinic Weighs in on EPA’s Effort to Reduce Light-Duty Vehicle Emissions

On March 3, the Environmental Law Clinic filed an amicus brief on behalf of the International Council on Clean Transportation in a D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals case dealing with the EPA’s authority to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from light-duty vehicles, a category that includes cars and SUVs as well as most vans and pickup trucks. The brief was drafted by Clinic student Raul Quintana (JD ’24).

The transportation sector is responsible for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, and about half of those emissions come from light-duty vehicles. In other words, these vehicles are the largest source of emissions for the country’s highest emitting sector.

At the end of 2021, the EPA revised its greenhouse gas emissions standards for light-duty vehicles to set more stringent targets through the 2026 model year. EPA strengthened the standards for two reasons. First, automakers have been rapidly developing all kinds of new innovations to reduce emissions, from making cars more aerodynamic to improving engine efficiency. Second, the popularity of electric vehicles has skyrocketed. Many of the world’s largest automakers are significantly expanding the number of electric vehicles they sell, and consumer demand has been similarly dramatic. In California, for example, nearly one out of every five cars sold last year was electric.

Despite these trends, a group of plaintiffs—including states, oil and gas companies, and their related trade organizations—now challenge the EPA’s rule in a group of cases consolidated under Texas v. EPA. They argue that the standards are impossible to achieve unless automakers produce electric vehicles. They allege that—by forcing electric vehicle production in this way—the rule amounts to an electric vehicle mandate that exceeds EPA’s statutory authority under the Clean Air Act.

The amicus brief directly takes on the factual premise of these claims. The International Council on Clean Transportation analyzed three different scenarios testing whether automakers could meet the standards even if fewer electric vehicles were produced and sold. The results demonstrate that automakers could still meet the standards even if the popularity of electric vehicles plummets in the next few years. Such a scenario is extremely unlikely, but even if it happened, automakers still would be able to meet the standards by improving vehicle efficiency and using accounting mechanisms that are available as part of these kinds of regulatory programs. Given these results, the brief shows, the revised standards are not an electric vehicle mandate.

“Reducing transportation emissions is one of the most important things we can do to meaningfully address climate change,” said Raul Quintana, who drafted the brief. “The EPA’s standards are critical to these efforts, and it was an honor to represent our clients in explaining why they should be upheld.”

Read the full brief here.