Under legal pressure, the Trump administration has reversed course on one of its many attempts to roll back various climate-related regulations by reinstating a transportation-related greenhouse gas rule it tried to kill just a few months ago.
On Monday, the Federal Highway Administration announced that the 2016 Transportation Clean Air Rule, which requires state and local planners to track and curb pollution from trucks and cars on federal highways in their jurisdictions, will remain in effect for now, while simultaneously announcing its intent to rewrite the rule.
Transportation produces about 36 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. The Transportation Clean Air Rule helps give states and local governments more leverage in seeking to cut down on that pollution. The rule, which is linked to federal highway funding, aims to promote mass transit and other alternatives to fossil-fuel transportation.
Conservation groups that challenged the Federal Housing Administration in court over the attempted rollback said the reversal shows that the Trump administration is trying to bluff and bully its way to undoing Obama-era climate regulations, at times through illegal actions that can be effectively challenged in court.
"This is a crucial win for our climate."
Several states and state agencies, including California and the California Air Resources Board, filed a similar suit against the federal government. The pressure has paid off, says Amanda Eaken, a transportation and climate expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"This is a crucial win for our climate," she says. With the rule back in place, the FHA can resume working with state and local planners to find transportation options that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Under the rule, they face a first compliance deadline about a year from now, in October of 2018.
The state and regional agencies are tasked with coming up with transportation plans that map out investments in transportation funded in part by federal allocations of gasoline tax revenues, but the federal government attaches certain conditions to that funding, says Deron Lovaas, a senior policy advisor to the NRDC's Urban Solutions program.
Every federal highway funding bill has strings attached; under President Barack Obama, the FHA added the new greenhouse gas standards, making it a target for the Trump administration.
The FHA didn't say exactly why it reversed course, but Lovaas thinks they may have recognized from other recent legal decisions—on methane emissions, for example—that the courts aren't going to allow legal regulations to simply be wiped away by fiat.
"In its haste to undo important environmental protections, the Trump administration has attempted to run roughshod over important public participation requirements set out in law," the Southern Environmental Law Center's Trip Pollard said in a statement.
The Obama administration started working on setting the transportation greenhouse gas standards in 2014. In all, nine state departments of transportation, 24 metropolitan planning organizations, more than 100 cities, 67 members of Congress, more than 100 public interest organizations, and nearly 100,000 individuals commented in favor of a greenhouse gas standard.
The final rule was issued on January 18th, 2017, two days before President Donald Trump's inauguration. It requires state and metro transport agencies and planning organizations to track carbon dioxide emitted by vehicles traveling on the national highway system. They must also set two- and/or four-year emissions-reduction targets and periodically report on their progress.
Trump's team immediately announced it would delay implementation and then tried to suspend it completely in May, triggering the lawsuits.