Court Strikes Down Obama-Era Rule Requiring Trailers Be Equipped With Fuel-Saving Tech

Washington D.C. — A federal appeals court determined the Obama Administration overstepped its authority in its attempts to regulate green house gas emissions and fuel economy standards for semi-trailers.

As part of the 2016 Phase 2 greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) rule, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) required heavy- and medium-duty trailers to adopt some combination of fuel-saving technologies such as side skirts and automatic tire pressure systems.


The requirements, which were due to take effect January 1, 2021, were stayed in 2017 after the Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association challenged the rule arguing the EPA and NHTSA did not have the statutory authority to regulate trailers in this way.

The case has languished in litigation until last week when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit issued its ruling.

“In 2016, the EPA issued a rule for trailers pulled by tractors based on a statute [Clean Air Act] enabling the EPA to regulate motor vehicles,” the three-judge panel wrote. “In that same rule, the NHTSA issued fuel-efficiency standards for trailers based on a statute [Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007] enabling NHTSA to regulate ‘commercial medium-duty or heavy-duty on-highway vehicles.’ Trailers, however, have no motor. They are therefore not ‘motor vehicles.’ Nor are they ‘vehicles’ when that term is used in the context of a vehicle’s fuel economy, since motorless vehicles use no fuel.”


All three judges agreed that the EPA did not have the authority to regulate semi-trailers under the Clean Air Act, because the Act applies specifically to “self-propelled” vehicles.

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However, the panel was split 2-1 on the NHTSA portion of the rule.

In her dissent, Circuit Judge Patricia Millett argued the NHTSA acted within its power under the Energy Independence Act since it “contains no definition of the term ‘vehicle’ other than regulating it in its on-highway operation and status.”

Further, she lamented the decision will “materially impede” the achievement of the NHTSA statute’s goal of producing the “maximum feasible improvement in fuel efficiency” for medium and heavy-duty vehicles.

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