As Biden pushes green cars, activist has lead role in highway safety agency

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An environmental legal activist will play a key role in the Biden administration’s electric vehicle initiative to include various new fuel economy regulations over the next decade. 

Ann Carlson, a law professor at the University of California Los Angeles, is on leave from the school to serve as chief counsel to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a division of the Transportation Department typically viewed as focusing on highway safety. 

However, Carlson – who has done pro bono work on climate litigation and frequently speaks about environmental legal issues – defined the job as working with the Environmental Protection Agency to address greenhouse gas emissions in vehicles. 

“NHTSA, as you know, has joint authority with EPA over the car and truck GHG standards and as a result the early political appointments will for the first time have strong climate experience,” Carlson wrote in announcing her new role to her UCLA colleagues in a Jan. 19 email.

On her leave of absence document to UCLA, in response to the question “Disposition of work while on leave,” she wrote, “The agency in charge of climate standards for cars and trucks.”

The agency is “apparently long-misnamed” if it’s all about climate, joked Chris Horner, a board member with Government Accountability and Oversight, a private nonprofit, not to be confused with the federal Government Accountability Office. Government Accountability and Oversight is suing UCLA for public records about Carlson’s climate litigation work. 

“That this is why the Biden administration recruited someone with her particular record, for that particular job, is a tell about how the administration is weaponizing the NHTSA for the climate agenda,” Horner told Fox News in an email.

President Biden issued an Aug. 5 executive order to set a goal of making 50% of all new vehicles sold in the United States electric by 2030. The executive order also states that the Environmental Protection Agency and NHTSA will issue new climate regulations.

“The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will announce how they are addressing the previous administration’s harmful rollbacks of near-term fuel efficiency and emissions standards,” a White House statement said. “The two agencies’ standards work in a compatible fashion through model year 2026, with the NHTSA proposed rule starting in model year 2024 and the EPA proposed rule taking effect a year sooner with model year 2023.” 

President Biden talks after driving a Jeep Wrangler 4xe Rubicon on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Aug. 5, 2021, during an event on clean cars and trucks. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Carlson will have multiple responsibilities, an NHTSA spokesperson said Friday. 

“NHTSA’s Chief Counsel, as the head legal officer of the agency, is responsible for providing legal counsel on the broad range of issues and programs falling under NHTSA’s responsibility, which include vehicle safety, grants for highway safety programs, and fuel economy,” the spokesperson told Fox News in an email. “Ann Carlson is one of the nation’s foremost legal scholars, with highly-regarded experience in policy analysis and teaching on, climate change, environmental issues, including groundbreaking work in air pollution law and policy. She has devoted her life to academic and public service.”

Carlson told the Fullerton Observer of her NHTSA job, “I’m part of a group of appointees that makes real the Biden-Harris commitment to make tackling climate change a whole government priority.” 

Before going to work for the government, Carlson has been leading the way on climate lawsuits and commenting to the media about such litigation, Horner added.

“Public records show Ms. Carlson is a key player in several aspects of the climate litigation industry, as a media surrogate for the plaintiffs’ side, serving on the tort bar team, recruiting other surrogates among academics for the tort effort, and working from inside other institutions such as the Environmental Law Institute to, e.g., arrange briefings by plaintiffs’ witnesses for federal judges,” Horner said. 

Carlson provided pro bono consulting for plaintiffs in climate litigation and cited the $246 billion tobacco settlement from the 1990s as a model for litigation against fossil fuel companies in an August 2019 op-ed for the Los Angeles Times. 

In May 2019, Carlson was part of a panel at the University of Hawaii Environmental Law Program at the William S. Richardson School of Law that described climate litigation as “an effective tool to shift the economic burden of climate change from taxpayers to polluters.”

In an April 2016 email message, Cara Horowitz – a colleague of Carlson’s at UCLA –said the UCLA Emmett Institute on Climate Change and Environment was teaming up with Harvard’s Emmett Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, as well as the Union of Concerned Scientists, to discuss “going after climate denialism – along with a bunch of state and local prosecutors nationwide.”

Carlson also worked with the Center for Climate Integrity, according to emails obtained by the Government Accountability and Oversight. 

The Center for Climate Integrity is an environmental group that describes its mission as “working to organize around climate accountability, including supporting lawsuits aimed at holding fossil fuel polluters accountable for the damages they have caused.”

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