Hickenlooper electric vehicle

Then-Gov. John Hickenlooper checks out an electric vehicle in January 2018 before announcing a statewide plan to encourage more charging stations.

The Colorado Automobile Dealers Association on Tuesday sued the state's air quality control commission to overturn recently adopted vehicle emission regulations based on standards set by California.

The dealership group charges that the state violated constitutional requirements and skipped steps in the rule-making process by reaching what the lawsuit describes as a predetermined outcome based on an executive order issued last year by then-Gov. John Hickenlooper.

In November, Colorado adopted vehicle emission rules incorporating California standards, following an order by Hickenlooper aimed at reducing the state's greenhouse gas emissions.

"The Commission seemed to have made its mind up before this rule-making process even started, rapidly pushing through this complex rule that will cost our state and citizens billions of dollars without taking the necessary time to fully evaluate its impacts," the dealers' group said in a release. "Unfortunately, it is Colorado’s consumers who will ultimately pay the price for this misguided decision."

Citing a figure produced by the Trump administration, the dealers argue the rule will add more than $2,000 to the cost of average new vehicles in Colorado.

"This is hard-earned cash that most Coloradans will not recover and will have the biggest negative impact on working families and the economically disadvantaged," the auto dealers said. "Rather than trust the citizens of our state to choose the vehicles they need and want to drive safely in Colorado’s unique conditions, the Commission has concluded that California’s regulators, not Coloradans, should decide what vehicles must be bought and sold in our state."

State officials came up with a different number, however, maintaining the average price of a new vehicle in 2025 under the new rule will be $1,138 higher. But officials also forecast that car owners will save as much as $1,682 on fuel and other maintenance costs, amounting to a net savings.

Currently, the federal and California standards are identical, with increasingly strict emission limits imposed on manufacturers through 2025, but the Trump administration has proposed freezing federal standards starting with the 2021 model year.

For decades, California has been the only state with a waiver under the federal Clean Air Act allowing it to impose tougher standards. Under federal law, states are only allowed to operate under federal standards or adopt those set by California. 

Colorado's move was designed to establish "a cost-effective and sensible backstop for Colorado in the event of a federal rollback," the commission said when it voted to incorporate the California rules. Another 12 states and the District of Columbia, mostly in the Northeast, have also adopted the California standards.

In the lawsuit, the auto dealers argue that dealerships will no longer be able to trade inventory with dealerships in neighboring states under the new rule, substantially increasing transaction costs and overall prices of new vehicles sold in Colorado. Because costs will be higher in Colorado, the lawsuit maintains, state residents will simply buy their new vehicles in nearby states.

The lawsuit also contends that the state violated a requirement when officials failed to calculate how much tax revenue will be lost if the regulation reduces fuel sales by an anticipated 1.6 billion gallons.

A spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said the department had no comment on the auto dealers' lawsuit.

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