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Kentucky is suing the Biden administration over carbon emissions on federal highways

A car drives across a bridge between Indiana and Kentucky.
Ryan Van Velzer
A Federal Highway Administration and U.S. Department of Transportation rule requires states with national highways to take steps to reduce on-road carbon emissions.

Attorney General Russell Coleman is leading a lawsuit against a Biden administration rule requiring states come up with a plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. If it fails, some fret the state state transportation cabinet would not have time to comply.

In an effort to protect public health and the environment while making a dent in the climate crisis, the Biden administration issued an executive order in 2021 directing federal agencies to reduce planet-warming emissions.

The Federal Highways Administration developed a rule that requires states to calculate and create goals to reduce tail-pipe emissions on the federal highway system, about 4,000 miles of which run through Kentucky.

Coleman and 20 other attorneys general argue the federal agencies have no authority to mandate states to carry out federal policy in a lawsuit filed in late December.

Lawmakers in a committee hearing Tuesday said it was the first time they have heard about either the rule or the lawsuit. They expressed concern that, if the lawsuit were to fail, the legislature and transportation cabinet would not be able to move fast enough to come into compliance.

In a statement, Coleman referred to the requirement as a “radical climate crackdown.”

“Our office is leading the fight to stop this Administration from raising costs for families, farmers and small business owners when they can least afford it,” Coleman said.

A press release announcing Coleman’s lawsuit said the Biden administration is forcing states to “rapidly reduce CO2 emissions or face potential penalties.”

The rule does not tell states how low their targets need to be — only that they must establish “declining carbon dioxide targets” and report back on their progress. The federal government has said there is no punishment for failing to meet the self-determined goals beyond a state report explaining how they intend to get back on track.

State transportation departments were asked to provide two and four-year emissions reduction goals by Feb. 1, but because of the pending lawsuit, the Federal Highway Association moved their deadline to the end of March. A judge is expected to return an initial judgment by the new deadline.

Vic Maddox with the Attorney General’s office spoke before the House transportation committee Tuesday. The state requirements aim to decrease their emission levels compared to 2022 numbers.

“We believe and we have alleged that the emissions rule represents yet another unlawful attempt by the Biden administration to use its limited regulatory authority as a means of circumventing Congress to achieve its policy goals,” Maddox said.

Climate scientists warn humankind is running out of time to end its reliance on fossil fuels and avoid further warming. Climate change has already made Kentucky warmer and wetter. Its effects will only become more pronounced in the coming decades.

Cars, trucks and other forms of transportation make up more than a third of all U.S. carbon emissions each year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The federal climate rule in and of itself imposes no additional costs on Kentuckians. Nonetheless, Coleman’s office estimated it would take “hundreds [of] hours of manpower” to establish the targets, which it said would cost the state over $600,000.

During the house committee meeting Tuesday, Deputy Transportation Secretary Mike Hancock said the cabinet intends to meet all federal requirements based on the outcome of the lawsuit.

After probing from lawmakers, Hancock said no one at the cabinet has begun to put together a plan before they know what the judge decides in March, but that he believed it would require no additional staff. He didn’t believe at least the initial response would take more than a week to complete, he said.

“The initial response is not all that detailed,” Hancock said. “We're not putting the cart before the horse… Whatever the outcome of that litigation, the cabinet will further pursue its obligation in whichever direction it's obligated.”

Republican Rep. Jason Nemes from Middletown said he believed that waiting until a week or so before the deadline to begin formulating a plan was “irresponsible.” He also questioned whether the transportation cabinet has the authority to create such a plan in the first place.

“It is not only imprudent; it's irresponsible, and I think illegal for any submission to be made on behalf of the Commonwealth of Kentucky that would bind dollars that only the General Assembly can appropriate,” Nemes said.

Nemes argued that any plan made to reduce emissions would likely affect money that the legislature has designated in the budget or could require additional funds.

Lawmakers also said they were concerned the environmental goals would get in the way of economic development — a familiar fear.

State government and politics reporting is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Lexington, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.

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