Supreme Court Rejects Local Anti-Smog Fleet Vehicle Rules

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, April 29, 2004 (ENS) - The Supreme Court has struck down anti-smog regulations that barred privately owned Los Angles area fleet operators from purchasing new diesel fuel vehicles and forced them to buy low emissions or alternative fueled vehicles. In an eight to one ruling, the Court determined that the regulations enacted by the regional air pollution control agency in 2000 appear to violate the federal Clean Air Act.

The court left open the possibility that the rules affecting public fleets will be allowed to stand.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District, which is the air pollution control agency for Orange County and major portions of Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, enacted the fleet rules in 2000 as part of an effort to reduce air pollution.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the region has the worst smog problem in the nation and more than two-thirds of the area's smog comes from vehicles.

The fleet rules apply to operators of public and private fleets of 15 or more vehicles, including taxis, airport shuttles, transit buses, solid waste collection vehicles and street sweepers.

Two industry groups - the Engine Manufacturers Association and the Western States Petroleum Association - challenged the rules in federal court.

The Engine Manufacturers Association is a Chicago based trade group representing diesel engine makers; the Western States Petroleum Association, a Sacramento based association representing major oil refineries, later joined the lawsuit. smog

Los Angeles has the worst smog in the nation. (Photo courtesy South Coast Air Quality Management District)
They claimed the fleet rules are pre-empted by the Clean Air Act, which prohibits the adoption or attempted enforcement of any state or local "standard relating to the control of emissions from new motor vehicles or new motor vehicle engines."

Those claims were rejected by a District Court and the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The lower courts agreed with AMQD regulators, who contend the rules do not violate the Clean Air Act because they addressed the purchase of vehicles - not their manufacture or sale.

The industry groups appealed to the Supreme Court and last year the Bush administration weighed in with support for their position.

In the ruling issued today, the majority of the Supreme Court agreed with their arguments and determined the lower courts wrongly interpreted the Clean Air Act to include only regulations that compel manufacturers to meet specified emission limits.

"In addition to having no basis in the text of the statute, treating sales restrictions and purchase restrictions differently for pre-emption purposes would make no sense," wrote Justice Antonin Scalia for the majority, who warned of a possible patchwork of local regulations.

"The manufacturer's right to sell federally approved vehicles is meaningless in the absence of a purchaser's right to buy them ... if one state or political subdivision may enact such rules, then so may any other; and the end result would undo Congress's carefully calibrated regulatory scheme," Scalia said in the majority opinion.

The lone dissenter - Justice David Souter - wrote that the rules do not violate the Clean Air Act because "they do not require manufacturers, even indirectly, to produce a new kind of engine."

The decision vacates the earlier ruling and remands the case back to the lower courts - in effect continuing the legal delay over the future of the rules. court

The Supreme Court's ruling sends the fleet rules back to the lower court. (Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Justice)
Barry Wallerstein, executive officer of the AQMD, said the decision is disappointing but it holds open the possibility that the fleet rules are valid as applied to public fleets.

The ruling also leaves the door open for fleet rules governing leased and used vehicles and rules that "can be characterized as internal state purchase decisions," which may well encompass more than publicly owned fleets, Wallerstein says.

The majority of vehicles regulated by AQMD's fleet rules are operated by government agencies, or are contracted to such agencies.

"We are determined to continue implementing the rules for publicly owned fleets," Wallerstein said. "We will also consider asking the state and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to allow us to continue to regulate privately owned fleets."

The state of California and 16 other states, several environmental groups, along with 20 organizations including the National League of Cities, National Conference of State Legislatures, National Association of Counties and U.S. Conference of Mayors, had weighed in with support for AQMD.

"The federal government should not block L.A., or any other area, from taking needed steps to protect its citizens from dirty air," said Dan Jacobson, legislative director for Environment California.