D.C. Circuit Rules That Trailers Are Not Motor Vehicles | National Review

D.C. Circuit Rules That Trailers Are Not Motor Vehicles | National Review

A semi-truck in Girard, Ohio, July 9, 2012 (Aaron Josefczyk / Reuters)

Is a semi-trailer a self-propelled motor vehicle? That is a question that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit was just forced to rule on because of environmental regulators going rogue.

In 2016, toward the end of the Obama administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration published Phase 2 of a new federal regulation about greenhouse-gas emissions and fuel-efficiency standards for motor vehicles. It was no simple regulation. It added 797 pages to the Federal Register. The EPA and NHTSA put out a slideshow to explain the regulation, and it’s 100 slides long. For some visual depictions of how compliance is supposed to work, click here, here, or here. The slideshow says, “At all steps, we encourage you to work with your EPA certification representative to avoid surprises or delays in the process” — a pleasant experience, no doubt.

Unlike Phase 1 of the same regulation, which only applied to tractors, the EPA and NHTSA wanted Phase 2 to apply to trailers. Trailers induce aerodynamic drag that can reduce fuel efficiency and increase greenhouse-gas emissions. There are things trailer manufacturers can do to ameliorate those effects, but, as FreightWaves explains, they are very costly:

New trailers can cost roughly $25,000 to $50,000. The Phase 2 GHG requirements include performance standards that trailer manufacturers can meet by equipping them with aerodynamic features that reduce aerodynamic drag, low rolling-resistance tires, tire pressure monitoring systems and weight reduction measures — tacking on thousands of dollars more to prices paid by trucking companies.

The Truck Trailer Manufacturer’s Association (TTMA) sued the federal government in December 2016 to prevent the regulation from going into effect. Its argument was simple: Trailers are not motor vehicles. They don’t have motors.

The law that the EPA and NHTSA were using allows for regulation of “self-propelled motor vehicles.” You don’t need to be an expert on trucking to know that trailers don’t move by themselves. TTMA’s lawyers had fun with their argument:

This is nonsense. EPA cannot circumvent an express limitation on its authority by engaging in word games. . . . In any event, EPA’s approach fails on its own terms. When a trailer is attached to a tractor, the combination is a self-propelled vehicle pulling a trailer; the combination does not transform a trailer into a self-propelled vehicle. Trailer manufacturers do not manufacture “tractor-trailers” any more than Jif manufactures peanut-butter sandwiches.

It seems like this should have been an open-and-shut case, but this is the federal government we are talking about. Courts are often willing to be very lenient with legal interpretation when an executive-branch agency makes a new regulation. And the court process takes a long time.

After years of back and forth, the D.C. Circuit ordered that the implementation of Phase 2 be stayed in September 2020. Phase 2 was set to go into effect on January 1, 2021, and the court wanted to make sure TTMA’s lawsuit was completed first.

At long last, the D.C. Circuit granted TTMA’s petition and on November 12 vacated all parts of Phase 2 that apply to trailers. The decision’s reasoning:

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.

So the EPA and NHTSA clearly overstepped the authority Congress gave them by using a motor-vehicle statute to regulate vehicles that don’t have motors. The court ruled against them in the end, but that doesn’t mean this process was costless. Five years in federal court that holds an entire industry in limbo as it wonders whether it will need to implement a costly regulation is a high price to pay for regulators going rogue.

Some things to ponder: Did this regulatory process make the American transportation sector more or less able to respond to the increased demand for goods in the wake of the pandemic? Whom does it benefit to have our federal courts ruling on whether trailers are motor vehicles? And how can we constrain the administrative state so that nonsense such as this doesn’t happen in the future?

Dominic Pino is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at National Review Institute.

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About the Author

Tony Beasley
Tony Beasley writes for the Local News, US and the World Section of ANH.