“Mother May I? California’s Struggle for Clean Air Under the Federal Government’s Preemptive Thumb: Engine Manufacturers Ass’n v. South Coast Air Quality Management District”

Appearing in JNREL Vol. 20 No. 2 the following comment was written by former staff member Anne Todd. Staff member Tara Hester wrote the following abstract.

The federal Clean Air Act (CAA) is superior to the laws of the states and cannot be preempted. Not only does the CAA rely on this general rule of preemption, but has explicit preemptory language as well, stating that "no state shall adopt or attempt to enforce any standard relating to the control of emissions from new motor vehicles . . . . " Engine Manufacturers Ass'n v. South Coast Air Quality Management District, 541 U.S. 246,252 (2004), involved the implementation of " Fleet Rules" issued by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), and is centered on whether those "Fleet Rules" constituted a standard in violation of the CAA.

During World War II, Los Angeles began to see the effects of increasing industrialization in the form of severe air pollution. Due to California's distinctive air pollution problems, Congress recognized that more stringent measures would be needed to combat the poor air quality, and the CAA granted California exclusive authority to set tougher emission standards than those implemented by the federal government.

The defendant in the subject case, AQMD, has the responsibility of ensuring the Los Angeles area achieves certain air quality standards. AQMD enacted "Fleet Rules" requiring various public and private operators of area fleets of fifteen or more vehicles to buy alternative fuel or cleaner fuel vehicles when these vehicles were commercially available. The fleet rules did not regulate manufactures, but set purchase requirements for when new vehicles were needed. However, the Engine Manufactures Association (EMA) said the purchasing requirements were standards preempted by the CAA and therefore not enforceable.

The District Court's decision is centered on an extensive analysis of the preemption doctrine. The court noted that the CAA states that fleet rules must be established in areas of high pollution, and it does not seem logical that the CAA would authorize purchasing requirements in the form of fleet rules and then prohibit them as the adoption of a "standard". The Court stated that in the area of traditional local police powers, such as air pollution prevention, the presumption is that local powers are not preempted.

However, the Supreme Court took a different view, characterizing the AQMD's Fleet Rules as standards and therefore in violation of the CAA. The Court first stated that if AQMD could enact standards, then other political subdivisions could do the same, and this would undo Congress's regulatory scheme. However, the most significant error the Court made was its reliance on a textual interpretation of the CAA rather than a broader look at the preemption doctrine. As suggested by the dissent, AQMD's purchasing requirements were not mandates because they only required the purchase of lower emission vehicles that were already on the market, and were not applicable if the fleet operators required models that were unavailable in a cleaner fuel model. Also, while the fleet rules may have reduced the demand for higher emission vehicles, it would not have completely destroyed the market for them.

By disallowing AQMD's fleet Rules, the Court took away a direct route to air quality improvement and forced AQMD to work through the California legislature to get results implemented. The AQMD must go back to the long line of those awaiting Congress' attention in order to make a change affecting fuel emissions. Additionally, agencies like the AQMD will no longer be able to provide strong incentives for manufacturers to create "cleaner" vehicles. This extremely broad reading and application of preemption led the Court to essentially ignore public policy reasoning in support of air quality.