Golden Gate University Environmental Law Journal


On April 30, 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) issued a final rule called the “Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient Vehicles Rule for Model Years 2021-2026 Passenger and Light Trucks” (“SAFE Rule”) to amend the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (“CAFE”) ratings. CAFE standards are regulations first enacted nearly fifty years ago to promote greater fuel efficiency in car manufacturing through a system of incentives and penalties. While the CAFE standards have been revised many times over the years, the SAFE Rule rolled back the more stringent 2012 CAFE standards that sought to align fuel efficiency with broader strategies to reduce greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions to address global climate change. Now that President Biden has taken office, the SAFE Rule is undergoing review, which may result in a return to more stringent standards. However, even with a regulatory fix, the use of CAFE standards to combat climate change is likely to remain problematic.

This comment will explore the history of the CAFE standards and the SAFE Rule as they relate to efforts to promote fuel efficient vehicles and reduce GHG emissions. This begins with a brief overview of the CAFE standards, including the roles of the EPA and the NHTSA in administering the standards, why the CAFE standards were created, and how this relates to the regulation of GHG emissions to address climate change. Next, this comment will evaluate how past legal challenges have influenced the CAFE regulations and how the SAFE Rule fits into the resulting regulatory and legal framework. Finally, this comment will discuss how the Biden administration can respond to the SAFE Rule, and what this might mean for the future of fuel-efficient vehicles and the increasingly urgent need to reduce GHG emissions to address climate change.