Environmental groups’ meritless lawsuit seeks to force adoption of unpopular EV mandates


On April 19, the Sierra Club and several environmental groups sued the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in response to its refusal to pass rules implementing the Advanced Clean Cars II program. The program would have required a percentage of new cars sold in Maine to be electric vehicles starting in 2028 and increase each year thereafter until, eventually, consumers could no longer purchase new gas-powered vehicles. 

However, the Board of Environmental Protection (BEP) refused to implement the rules due to the widespread public resistance to these mandates. One BEP member even noted that his opposition to the rule was due to concerns that its unpopularity would be a setback to the environmental movement in Maine.

But this new lawsuit isn’t about trying to make the world a better place or reducing emissions. The Sierra Club and the other groups behind this suit are only after publicity. I hope the Cumberland County Superior Court judges will realize this reality and dismiss the suit as soon as possible, denying the plaintiffs their desperately sought attention.

The origin of this suit is a climate law that Maine passed in 2019, in which the state promised it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions below a certain level by 2030 and be carbon neutral by 2045. The Sierra Club and their co-plaintiffs allege that the DEP failed to meet its duties under the statute by failing to pass the recent vehicle standard and similar emission reduction rules. This claim is entirely unfounded, though, primarily because the department, in its 2022 Biennial Report, stated that Maine is already on track to be carbon neutral by 2045. Not only is this suit factually dubious, it is also full of legal problems.

When a plaintiff files a lawsuit, the court must first ask whether the person or group suing has legal standing. Standing is a concept that restricts lawsuits only to people who are personally injured by the defendant’s actions, and there are three standing requirements federally. Both federal and state courts in Maine impose the basic requirements of standing. While Maine courts apply standing on a case-by-case basis weighing various factors, these factors often align with the objective federal test established in the case Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife.

Under Lujan, the first requirement is that an actual injury occurred to the plaintiff. The second is that the defendant actually caused the injury. The third is that the court can fix the injury. The Supreme Judicial Court of Maine confirmed the need for a concrete and particularized injury in the 2008 Lindemann v. Com’n on Gov’t case.

For an injury to have occurred, it needs to be concrete and particularized, meaning it must have been observable and tangible and affect the plaintiff personally. But what is the injury in this case? The plaintiffs allege their injury is from extreme weather and other climate change effects, but these don’t hurt the plaintiffs more than any other Mainer. In theory, if climate change hurts every Mainer, the Sierra Club has no personal connection to this case. Additionally, the weather is such an omnipresent issue that claiming it as an injury is legally dubious, and that segways well into the second standing issue.

Sierra Club doesn’t only have to prove that they were personally injured but also that the department caused the injury. The only injuries they allege are those related to extreme weather and climate change. But they can’t prove that the department’s inaction caused any recent storms or any specific weather. Even if Maine’s recent storms were caused by climate change, the plaintiffs can’t prove to what degree the department contributed. Additionally, the law they are suing under only establishes emissions obligations starting in 2030, and they cannot prove that Maine’s current actions will not comply by that point in time, or that noncompliance with the law could cause an injury six years before the 2030 deadline.

The above issue somewhat also addresses the last standing requirement. If the Court somehow forced the department to adopt these rules, the storms would have already happened, and the rest of the world would be emitting just like before. Thus, the Court could not redress the preexisting “injuries,” and they have no way to prove that adopting these rules would mitigate future climate change. 

Furthermore, Maine’s courts follow a prudential standing rule, which means courts can choose not to hear a case because it is too complex or political or because of a wide range of other reasons. The lack of certainty regarding the standing issues and the deference that the Court would give the agency in interpreting this statute would be good reasons for a court to refuse to hear this suit.

Even if the Sierra Club is correct that this inaction by the department will injure them, they still have to wait for the injury to occur or be imminent. Because of the cumulative and long period it takes for emissions and climate change effects to happen, even by activist analysis, the impact of greenhouse gas emissions is over decades or centuries, not individual years, meaning the claim fails another legal requirement of “ripeness.” This suit fails ripeness because the injury they allege from the department has not yet occurred and is not imminent, as any injury the department actually causes is decades away at least. Thus, it does not meet a court’s typical requirement to hear only ongoing “cases and controversies.”

Lastly, and most importantly, even if the Court found this suit to have Lujan-style standing and the Court did not exercise prudential standing to dismiss the case while ignoring ripeness, they would still be certain to rule for the department based upon agency deference. As the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine stated in the 2006 case Cobb v. Bd. of Counseling Prof. Licensure, when interpreting ambiguous statutes, courts “give deference to the Board’s interpretation unless it is unreasonable.” The statute cited by Sierra Club and its allies does not describe any specific speed at which the department must approach its 2030 emissions goals. Therefore, it is unquestionable that a court would interpret this ambiguity in favor of the defendants.

As said earlier, the sooner Maine’s courts dismiss this suit, the better, as it abuses our laws, courts, and environmental protection offices simply for the publicity of a few activist organizations. We should heed the warning of BEP member, Robert Sanford, during the BEP’s deliberations of the Advanced Clean Cars II proposal: “People could do real damage environmentally and regulatorily as a result of the perceptions if this thing goes through.”