Fleet Rules Aflutter

WHETHER TO BUY OR LEASE a new waste collection truck is not the big issue in Southern California. Either way, procurement may be limited to super low-emission vehicles, according to a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) is the air pollution control agency for Orange County, Calif., and major portions of Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties. In 2000, SCAQMD adopted certain rules to reduce air pollutants by requiring public and private operators of fleets with 15 or more street sweepers, refuse collection trucks and other vehicles to buy or lease certain lower-emission vehicles when adding or replacing equipment.

A trade association representing manufacturers of internal combustion engines sued SCAQMD in federal district court, claiming that the fleet rules are pre-empted by Section 209 of the Clean Air Act, which prohibits states and localities from adopting or enforcing their own “standard relating to the control of emissions from new motor vehicles or new motor vehicle engines.” The district court upheld the rules, finding that they regulate only the purchase of vehicles otherwise certified for sale in California and do not impose new emission requirements on manufacturers. A federal appeals court affirmed the lower court ruling for the same reasons.

In June 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take up the case. The Bush administration filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the trade group. The state of California and 16 other states, together with some 20 organizations including prominent local government groups, filed briefs supporting SCAQMD. By an 8-1 margin, the high court said that the fleet rules do not escape federal pre-emption simply because they address the purchase of vehicles, rather than their manufacture or sale.

“[T]reating sales restrictions and purchase restrictions differently for pre-emption purposes would make no sense,” the majority opinion said. “The manufacturer's right to sell federally approved vehicles is meaningless in the absence of a purchaser's right to buy them.”

SCAQMD's “command, accompanied by sanctions, that certain purchasers may buy only vehicles with particular emission characteristics is as much an ‘attempt to enforce’ a ‘standard’ as a command, accompanied by sanctions, that a certain percentage of a manufacturer's sales volume must consist of such vehicles,” the opinion continued.

The high court overturned the appeals court decision, and ordered the case back to the lower courts for final resolution. “[I]t appears likely that at least certain aspects of the Fleet Rules are pre-empted … [but] it does not necessarily follow, however, that the Fleet Rules are pre-empted in toto,” the opinion concluded.

Among the key issues for the lower courts to address is whether some of the rules could be viewed as internal state purchasing decisions where a different standard of pre-emption might apply. In the meantime, SCAQMD hopes to obviate further litigation if the state is successful in seeking a waiver from federal law.

[Engine Manufacturers Association v. South Coast Air Quality Management District, No. 02-1343, Apr. 28, 2004]

The columnist is aRockville, Md., attorney and serves as general counsel of the Solid Waste Association of North America.

The legal editor welcomes comments from readers. Contact Barry Shanoff via e-mail: shanoff@knopf-brown.com.

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