Rollback of Obama-Era Fuel-Efficiency Standards Faces Challenges in Courts and Congress

May 29, 2020

Earlier this year, the administration of US President Donald Trump issued the Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient Vehicles Rule (SAFE Rule), rolling back vehicle fuel-efficiency standards adopted under the administration of President Barack Obama. In response, 23 US states, four cities, and the District of Columbia have filed a petition for review of the final rule in the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The state-led challenge builds on recent congressional investigation into the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decision-making leading to the SAFE Rule.

Obama-Era Clean Car Standards

In 2012, the US government finalized a set standards collectively known as the Clean Car Standards. These unified national standards sought to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by gradually raising fuel-efficiency standards for US vehicle fleets. The Obama-era standards specifically called for nearly 5% annual increases in the average fuel efficiency of US vehicle fleets between model years 2021 and 2026, and further required such fleets to average 46.7 miles per gallon by 2026.

SAFE Rule Fuel-Efficiency Standards

The Trump administration’s initial plan proposed freezing fuel-efficiency standards at 2020 levels (i.e., requiring no fuel-efficiency improvements through 2026). When the administration issued the final SAFE Rule on March 31, 2020, however, it called for: (a) 1.5% annual increases in average fuel efficiency; and (b) US vehicle fleets to average 40.4 miles per gallon by 2026.

The Trump administration claims that these adjusted standards strike a healthier balance between environmental and economic concerns than the Obama-era rules. An EPA spokesperson told reporters that the SAFE Rule “provides a sensible, single national program that strikes the right regulatory balance, protects our environment, and sets reasonable targets for the auto industry, while supporting our economy and the safety of American families.”

According to the administration, the SAFE Rule will save automakers up to $100 billion in regulatory costs, which they can use to reduce consumer prices and improve vehicle safety.

State-Led Lawsuit and Congressional Investigation

On May 27, 2020, a 23-state coalition led by California filed a petition for review of the SAFE Rule in the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.[1] The petition argues, among other things, that the SAFE Rule violates the Clean Air Act, the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, and the Administrative Procedures Act.

In a press statement announcing the lawsuit, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra contended that the SAFE Rule is inconsistent with congressional mandates and based on an “analysis riddled with errors, omissions, and unfounded assumptions in an attempt to justify the[] [administration’s] desired result.”

The new challenge comes one week after Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.), the highest-ranking Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, called for an investigation into the agency decision-making leading to the final SAFE Rule. According to reports, Senator Carper obtained internal documents showing, among other things, that prior to the issuance of the final SAFE Rule:

  • EPA staff objected to claims that the rule would reduce climate change impacts; and
  • The White House Office of Management and Budget found that the rule lacked “legal justification, warning the EPA that: “It does not do enough to explain why [a] 1.5 [annual increase in fuel-efficiency] is the right stringency level as a matter of fact or why it is proper as a matter of law. The legal justification reads very cursory.”

The Trump administration has vowed to defend the SAFE Rule against these recent challenges.


If you have any questions or would like more information on the issues discussed in this LawFlash, please contact any of the following Morgan Lewis lawyers:

John McGahren
Stephanie R. Feingold
Christopher J. McAuliffe

Los Angeles
Rick R. Rothman

San Francisco
F. Jackson Stoddard

Washington, DC
Duke K. McCall, III

[1] Twelve environmental groups also filed challenges on May 27, 2020, asking the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to invalidate the SAFE Rule.