WASHINGTON, DC — It isn’t often that the U.S. Supreme Court decides a case that directly impacts the school bus industry. But on April 28 – coincidently the same day a coalition of school bus interests was meeting with congressional delegations in the same city – the court handed down a decision that, although not directly impacting pupil transportation, has the potential of affecting pupil transportation broadly and deeply, albeit temporarily.
The 8-1 ruling came in Engine Manufacturers Association and Western States Petroleum Association v. South Coast Air Quality Management District et a l., Supreme Court case No. 02-1343).
The case involved rulings by two lower courts that found in favor of the South Coast Air Quality Management District in California . The SQAMD had issued clean fleet rules in the summer of 2000, requiring fleet operators of school buses, transit buses, trash trucks, airport shuttles and taxis, street sweepers and heavy-duty utility trucks, to buy clean-fueled models when they replace vehicles or add to their fleets of 15 or more vehicles. AQMD does not consider diesel, even low sulfur diesel, as a clean fuel. The fleet rules resulted in a ban on the sale of diesel powered vehicles throughout the 5 county AQMD region.
“The fleet rules apply to fleets of 15 vehicles or more, smaller fleets are exempt,” said a spokesman for the AQMD. “For fleets subject to the rules it requires fleet operator, when replacing an old vehicle, to buy alternative fuel model. Alternative fuel is defined as a natural gas vehicle or one that has equivalent emission to natural gas specifically with respect to particulate matter, toxicity and NOx.
“Regarding the clean diesel question,” he continued, “initially diesel engine mfg tried to make the case that diesel is a lot cleaner that it used to be and should be allowed under rules. But the policy of our governing board is to set the bar at natural gas vehicle. Today, although diesel engines have become a lot cleaner through use of particulate traps, diesel engines still do not have the same low level of emissions. That’s why diesel vehicles have not qualified as compliant vehicles.”
AQMD’s decision followed completion of the agency’s Multiple Air Toxics Exposure Study which showed that 80 percent of the cancer risk from air pollution for all residents, not just children on school buses, is due to diesel exhaust. School buses were lumped in charter and public transit buses, garbage trucks, street sweepers and airport shuttles.
Authored by Justice Antonin Scalia , the court ruled that SCAQMD may have overstepped its authority in imposing its own anti-smog rules for fleet vehicles. Justices said regulators did not have the right to impose rules requiring private fleets to use engines that burn clean fuel and produce low emissions. While limiting its findings to private diesel-powered fleets, the Supreme Court ordered the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles to rule on whether the AQMD can regulate public fleets.
So how does this ruling, which limits regulation of privately-owned fleets affect, school buses, you ask? Clearly, district owned fleets do not come under the latest Supreme Court ruling, but what about privately owned school bus fleets contracted to public school districts?
“We believe the decision by the Supreme Court still allows the AQMD to regulate private contractor fleets contracted by public agencies,” said an AQMD spokesman. The agency is expected to discuss, vote on and formalize its views on this question by mid summer. In the meantime, the Supreme Court remanded to the District Court in Los Angeles to further adjudicate the question of whether the AQMD has the authority to regulate public fleets, such as those owned by school districts.
Whatever the lower court rules may turn out to be a moot issue in a couple of years. As currently written, the 2007 EPA emission standards mandate a lower diesel emission level than CNG, currently the AQMD’s preferred alternate fuel. In fact the diesel emissions standards for NOx and particulate matter will be lower by half. By 2010 EPA expects a 98 percent reduction of emissions from diesel compared to today.