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US judge sides with Ky attorney general over climate rule on federal highways

Interstate 64
Ryan Van Velzer
U.S. Interstate 64 through Louisville, Kentucky.

A federal district judge in Kentucky has ruled against a Biden administration policy requiring states come up with a plan to reduce tailpipe emissions.

The Federal Highways Administration rule requires states to create goals to reduce tail-pipe emissions on the federal highway system, including the 4,000 miles that runs through Kentucky.

In a summary judgment, U.S. District Judge Benjamin Beaton decided that the Biden administration rule to set climate targets for vehicles was beyond the administration’s scope. He called it “arbitrary and capricious.” Beaton was appointed to the bench by former President Donald Trump.

The rule does not dictate specific goals — only that they are designed to result in “declining” emissions — and largely requires monitoring of tailpipe emissions on federal highways. Kentucky Attorney General Russell Coleman, who led the lawsuit alongside 20 other states, previously said implementing the rule would cost roughly $600,000, mostly in manpower.

Beaton said in his opinion that the 21 states, including Kentucky, have shown no interest in pursuing declining CO2 goals and forcing them to monitor those emissions levels with no incentives or punishments for compliance doesn’t pass judicial scrutiny.

“The assumption is a head-scratcher. Why would making states calculate an unenforceable [Greenhouse Gas] Measure cause them to choose highway projects that reduce tailpipe emissions?” Beaton wrote.

The ruling does not formally offer an injunction. Coleman’s spokesperson Kevin Grout said he believed the ruling had the “same practical effect as a formal injunction would.”

“Judge Beaton’s ruling gives us the relief we need – an end to any obligation to comply with the rule,” Grout said.

In the declaratory judgment, Beaton’s gives the parties 21 days to address the needs for additional relief for the states involved in the lawsuit.

Coleman sued the Environmental Protection Agency twice in March alone, attempting to block a new air quality rule and then a rule to restrict methane gas emissions.

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 Administration moved their deadline to the end of March — Beaton issued his ruling just after that deadline.

Beaton requested the administration and suing states to file another request for “remedial action” on the case within 21 days. While the ruling decided that the highway administration’s rule had gone too far, it didn’t unravel the ruling completely.

“Because the Final Rule operates on a state-by-state basis, with no one state’s compliance or coercion affecting that of any other state, the remedy is appropriately dispensed to the Plaintiff States only, not nationwide,” Beaton wrote.

Climate scientists say that fossil fuels are largely responsible for global climate change, and humankind must end its reliance on them to avoid further warming. Climate change has made Kentucky warmer and wetter in recent 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.

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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