Minnesota car dealers took to federal court Wednesday to fight proposed changes to the state’s emissions rules for new automobiles, saying that the state’s ongoing rulemaking is preempted by federal environmental laws.
The regulations at issue would bring Minnesota’s emissions standards for new car sales up to par with those enforced in California. Minnesota would be the first Midwestern state to take up that elevated — and contested — standards, which were made possible by an Environmental Protection Agency waiver revoked in 2019.
Fourteen other states and the District of Columbia have also adopted the standard, which sets low targets for greenhouse-gas emissions and proportional minimums for zero-emission vehicles offered for sale to consumers.
In a complaint in federal court, the Minnesota Auto Dealers Association argued that the revocation of that waiver means Minnesota’s ability to imitate California’s standards is preempted by the Clean Air Act and the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, two federal laws that grant the power to make emissions and fuel economy standards to the EPA and Secretary of Transportation, respectively.
“[The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency] admits that the rule making process is ‘unusual’ because the proposed rule cannot take effect until three things happen,” attorney Byron Starns wrote in the dealers’ complaint.
Those three things, he continued, included the resolution of litigation over California’s waiver, the EPA and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reverse course and restore the waiver, and Minnesota meets federal requirements to impose the same rules.
“This could be at least years from now and possibly never,” Starns wrote.
By design, there is no middle ground for automakers in these regulations, said Carolyn Berninger, a policy analyst for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. The group was heavily involved in advocating for the rules. California was grandfathered in because heavy air pollution spurred it to make emissions rules before the federal ones were imposed, she said, creating a two-standard system for American cars.
“The idea there is to avoid what we call the third car,” Berninger said. “If every state was able to set its standards however it chooses, that would make it very difficult for automakers.”
MADA president Scott Lambert argued that adopting California standards simply doesn’t make sense in Minnesota. California-standard cars are more expensive, he said, and the state’s electric-car requirements don’t meet Minnesota’s demand.
“The rules put pretty aggressive goals down for selling electric vehicles, and we are not a Southern California climate,” Lambert said. “We are a northern climate, and it is cold here three months out of the year. And the demand for electric vehicles is low here, in Minnesota.”
He emphasized that dealers aren’t opposed to electric vehicles on principle, but that the infrastructure improvements needed to stock and sell them could be too costly to keep up with drivers’ demand.
“Minnesota automobile dealers will sell whatever the consumer wants. We are here to serve the public, and to get them whatever they need. The reality is now that consumers don’t want electric vehicles, and when they want ‘em, we’ll stock ‘em,” Lambert said.
Berninger, meanwhile, pointed out that having a stock of electric vehicles on their lots would incentivize dealers to promote the cars more in an effort to drive demand up. She also pointed out that electric and low-emissions models aren’t widely available in Minnesota, with manufacturers selling most of their stock to the states who already have the rules in place.
“The majority of these new makes and models, right now, would go to these coastal states that have those standards, and Minnesotans don’t have access to those,” Berninger said. “Consumer choice is a big motivator for adopting the rules here.”
MPCA spokesman Darin Broton said in a statement that low-emission vehicles are not news in Minnesota, and pointed out that the state’s Legislature had set a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050.
“Minnesota’s proposed clean car standards for low emission vehicles are used in all new cars, trucks and SUVs sold in Minnesota since 2012 and already adopted in 14 states with Nevada and New Mexico also seeking adoption,” Broton wrote. “Auto dealers in Minnesota have been successfully selling more stringent low-emission vehicles since 2012, and they can meet Minnesota’s proposed standards for years to come.”
Public comment on the issue is planned for February, and the standards would not be adopted until the 2025 model year, giving dealers a two-year period to acquire tradable credits for the sale of electric vehicles.
Despite this, Lambert said he doesn’t have much faith in that process, leading the MADA to file their lawsuit.
“There’s nothing that can stop this. If the MPCA wants to move forward, they can move forward,” he said. “They have been very dismissive of our concerns, and rulemaking is a freight train that can’t be stopped.”