D.C. Circuit says trailers are not "motor vehicles"

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On November 12, 2021, a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association, Inc. v. EPA, et al. held that the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) cannot regulate trailers as “motor vehicles.”  The decision pertained to portions of the 2016 heavy-duty greenhouse gas Phase 2 rule issued by EPA.  As part of the Phase 2 rule, EPA set greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emission standards for heavy-duty trailers by relying on its authority to regulate “motor vehicles” as defined in the Clean Air Act.  As part of the same rule, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) issued fuel efficiency standards for trailers by relying on its authorization to regulate “commercial medium-duty or heavy-duty on-highway vehicles.”  The court found neither action was permissible and vacated all portions of the rule that applied to trailers.

The court relied on the fact that trailers have no motor and are not “self-propelled.”  As a result, the court concluded that trailers are not “motor vehicles” and are not within the scope of EPA’s or NHTSA’s regulatory authority.  The dissenting judge agreed with the majority that EPA cannot regulate trailers directly, under its existing statutory authority, but noted that EPA could instead regulate tractors “including the types of trailers they are allowed to pull” and could regulate the assembler of the tractor-trailer to ensure the assembled tractor-trailers meet emission standards.  However, the dissenting judge disagreed that NHTSA exceeded its authority by issuing fuel efficiency standards for trailers.  Unlike the Clean Air Act, NHTSA’s enabling laws do not define the term “vehicle,” and the judge determined that NHTSA reasonably applied a long-established definition that includes commercial trailers. 

Looking ahead

This decision regarding the scope of EPA’s and NHTSA’s regulatory authority over “motor vehicles” will certainly inform the agencies’ approach to future mobile source GHG rules, as well as future court decisions on EPA’s authority to set and enforce GHG emission standards under the Clean Air Act.

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