Court reverses Obama-era trailer emissions standards

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Updated Nov 20, 2021

The Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association won an appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit that removes trailers from emissions requirements enacted in 2016.

The Environmental Protection Agency and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Phase 2 Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Fuel Efficiency Standards for Medium- and Heavy-Duty Engines and Vehicles was the first rulemaking to put emissions standards on trailers. The standards would have required trailer manufacturers to adopt some combination of fuel-saving technologies, such as aerodynamic side skirts, automatic tire inflation systems and more.

A three-judge panel agreed that EPA lacked authority to regulate trailers under the Clean Air Act, and two of the three judges agreed that NHTSA’s authority also did not cover trailers in this context.

TTMA said it's pleased with the court's opinion and believes the decision to add equipment to trailers should be left up to the trucking companies themselves.

“We are pleased that the court saw the errors in the rulemaking from EPA and NHTSA,” said Jeff Sims, TTMA President. “This puts the decision making in the hands of the people that understand their operations best – the motor carriers. Each motor carrier can now choose ultimately what equipment will or will not benefit from fuel saving devices in the context of their specific operations. You could have two fully outfitted trailers, for example, one being used in highway over-the-road service, and it will gain fuel efficiency from the devices, while the other trailer being used in city pick-up and delivery, and it will not gain any efficiencies in fuel economy and in fact, with the added weight, will use more fuel.”

Sims added that his organization supports efforts to reduce GHG emissions but contends the Phase 2 regulations were not the best way to do so.

“TTMA members have always shared the same goals as the motor carrier industry and federal and state regulators to reduce GHG emissions and save fuel, but there is a better way to accomplish this than what EPA and NHTSA had mandated,” he said. “We remain open to sensible rulemaking mirrored after the very successful voluntary EPA Smartway Program that has in effect for over a decade now.”

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With regard to EPA’s authority for the requirements, TTMA objected to the rulemaking, arguing that the EPA lacked authority to regulate the non-engine parts of a vehicle under the Clean Air Act.

Because trailers have no motor, they are not “motor vehicles,” said Circuit Judge Justin R. Walker in the court’s opinion.

According to the ruling, EPA’s Clean Air Act defines “motor vehicle” to exclude anything that does not propel itself, and because trailers are not “self-propelled,” EPA cannot use the Clean Air Act to regulate trailers’ effects on greenhouse gas emissions.

Walker went on to say that EPA’s key problem in its argument was that “a tractor is a motor vehicle before it’s part of a tractor-trailer. With or without a trailer, the tractor is self-propelled and designed for transporting people or property on the road. Trailers (and trailer manufacturers) are therefore unlike parts of a motor vehicle (and their manufacturers) required for self-propulsion.”

With regard to NHTSA’s authority, the court said that while Congress did not define the term “vehicle” in the Ten-in-Ten Fuel Economy Act, which Congress passed in 2007 to require NHTSA to establish fuel economy standards for certain vehicles, multiple references to “fuel economy” in the legislation “put the term ‘vehicle’ in a context limited to machines that use fuel,” Walker added, which rules out trailers from NHTSA’s authority in this context.

Another judge on the three-judge panel, Judge Patricia A. Millett, agreed with the other two judges that EPA’s authority does not apply to trailers. She did, however, dissent to the court’s opinion on NHTSA’s authority.

“NHTSA acted under a provision of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 that directed NHTSA to establish fuel efficiency standards for commercial medium- and heavy-duty ‘on-highway vehicles,’” she said. “Unlike the Clean Air Act, the Energy Independence Act contains no definition of the term ‘vehicle’ other than regulating it in its on-highway operation and status. Given that focal point, NHTSA quite reasonably applied a long-established definition of vehicles that includes commercial trailers. The majority opinion’s view that NHTSA’s interpretation somehow runs afoul of ‘plain’ non-existent text does not stand up.”