Department of Transportation v. Public Citizen

PETITIONER:Department of Transportation, et al.
RESPONDENT:Public Citizen, et al.
LOCATION:Meramec River

DOCKET NO.: 03-358
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 541 US 752 (2004)
GRANTED: Dec 15, 2003
ARGUED: Apr 21, 2004
DECIDED: Jun 07, 2004

Edwin S. Kneedler – argued the cause for Petitioners
Jonathan Weissglass – argued the cause for Respondents

Facts of the case

In 2001, President Bush announced that he planned to lift a temporary ban on Mexican trucking companies in the United States once new regulations were prepared by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) to regulate safety inspections and applications to transport materials. Congress specified certain standards that those regulations would have to meet before it would appropriate money to register the new carriers.

When the FMCSA formulated its regulations, it performed an Environmental Assessment (EA) to examine their effects on the environment. Under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), federal agencies must perform an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) of policies that are likely to have significant environmental effects. If an agency feels that its policies will not have significant effects, however, it may perform a more limited Environmental Assessment (EA) – which is what FMCSA chose to do. Public Citizen, a watchdog group that monitors government actions, challenged this decision in federal court. It argued that, because FMCSA knew that a large number of Mexican trucks would be admitted into the United States once it issued its regulations, it should have considered the environmental impact of the increased number of trucks in addition to the more limited impact of the safety inspections. The impact of the trucks would have been significant enough to warrant an EIS, so Public Citizen argued that FMCSA had violated NEPA by not conducting the more stringent study. The district court side with the FMCSA, holding that, while the passage of the regulations was necessary before the trucks could be admitted, the FMCSA nevertheless did not have control of those trucks and therefore did not have to account for them in its Environmental Assessment; a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel reversed.


Should the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, knowing that its passage of certain regulations would cause Congress and the President to lift a ban on Mexican motor carriers, have considered the environmental impact of the motor carriers when determining whether to perform an Environmental Impact Study of its regulations?

Media for Department of Transportation v. Public Citizen

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – April 21, 2004 in Department of Transportation v. Public Citizen

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 07, 2004 in Department of Transportation v. Public Citizen

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 03-358, Department of Transportation versus Public Citizen will be announced by Justice Thomas.

Clarence Thomas:

This case comes to us on a writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Since 1982, there has been a moratorium on the authorization of most new cross-boarder operations of Mexican motor carriers.

As part of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the United States agreed to phase out this moratorium.

After the President made clear his intention to lift the moratorium, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which I will refer to as agency, published for comment two rules concerning the safety regulations of Mexican motor carriers.

Congress subsequently passed the Department of Transportation and related agencies Appropriation Act.

Section 350 of the Act provided that no funds appropriated under the act of the expended review or process any application by Mexican carriers until the agency implemented a particular set of safety regulations.

Acting pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act, NEPA, the agency issued an environmental assessment for its proposed rules.

I will refer to the environmental assessment as EA.

The agency assumed for the purposes of its EA analysis that there would be no change in trade volume between the United States and Mexico due to the issuance of the rules.

It acknowledged that due to Section 350, no Mexican motor carriers could be authorized for cross-boarder operations until it issued the regulations, but it determined that any increase in operations would result from the President’s modification of the moratorium not from its regulations.

The agency concluded that the issuance of its rules have no significant environmental impact and declined to perform a full environmental impact assessment or EIS.

By the way there will be a quiz on all of the acronyms after this.

And also that it did not need to perform a full conformity determination for its regulations under the Clean Air Act or CAA and various implementing regulations.

Respondents filed petitions for judicial review of the rules arguing that the rules were promulgated in violation of NEPA and the CAA.

Respondents argued that the agency was required under NEPA and the CAA to factor into its analysis the environmental effects arising from the increased cross-boarder operations of Mexican motor carriers.

The Court of Appeals agreed, set aside the rules, and remanded the case for preparation of an EIS and a full conformity determination.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk today, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

Under NEPA, an agency is required to prepare an EIS only if it will be undertaking a “major federal action”.

Under the applicable regulations, a major federal action includes those actions with effects that may be major and which are potentially subject to federal control and responsibility.

So, the question in this case is whether the increase in cross-boarder operations of Mexican motor carriers is an effect of the agency’s issuance of its proposed rules.

The answer is no.

As this Court has previously held a but for causal relationship between an agency action and an effect is insufficient to make an agency responsible for evaluating that effect under NEPA.

Instead, something analogous to proximate causation must be shown.

Courts must look to the underlying policies or legislative intent of NEPA in order to draw a manageable line between those causal changes that may make an actor responsible for an effect and those that do not.

Here, the agency could not prevent the increase in the cross-boarder operations of the Mexican motor carriers.

The agency is required to register as a motor carrie any person that it finds is willing and able to comply with established safety and financial responsibility requirements.

For this reason, none of NEPA’s purposes would be advanced by requiring the agency to take into account the environmental effect of the increase in cross-boarder operations.

Finally, the agency did not need to consider the environmental impact of the increase in cross-boarder operations in deciding whether to perform a full conformity determination under the CAA.

Under the CAA and the applicable regulations, an agency must determine whether its actions would interfere with a state’s implementation plan if its actions would cause an increase in emissions beyond threshold levels established by the EPA.

Clarence Thomas:

An agency must consider both direct and indirect emissions.

Since the emissions from the Mexican trucks would not occur at the same place and time as the issuance of the agency’s rules, they are not direct emissions.

And since the agency cannot practicably control or maintain control over these emissions, the emissions are not indirect.

The opinion of the Court is unanimous.