If you told me after my sophomore year in college, that I would voluntarily sign up for a project in law school that required economic research, I would have thought you were crazy. During my sophomore year in college, I took the Introduction to Economic courses and it was the year I decided to never do anything related to economics ever again (I subsequently switched my major away from economics to another major much less technical).
Despite my disavowal of everything economic, I chose to join our Clean Car Affordability team for the Environmental Law Clinic. I found this project interesting because it was taking an administrative process that seemed relegated to automotive, scientific, and economic experts and focusing it on a marginalized group—low-income households. It was trying to give a voice to those who usually are not included in the administrative process. Without any technical assistance, economic literacy can be a barrier for most people and our team quickly realized this barrier can be difficult to overcome even with help from experts and the resources of one of the top universities in the country.
Luckily, we had a great team and we began the project by searching through databases and internet search engines for anything related to fuel economy and low-income consumers. Along the way, I came across economic jargon (such as “econometrics”) that I still do not really understand and some that I was a little more familiar with. Unfortunately, not much research is out there related to fuel economy and low-income households so we began to familiarize ourselves with the economic mechanisms of the car market and how regulations affect this market. Our team realized our work advocating for low-income households on the comment letter was necessary to fill the hole in the administrative record. Not much research has focused on the distributional impacts of fuel economy standards which serves to highlight the unique challenges low-income individuals face in the car market and meeting transportation needs generally.
One of the unexpected challenges of this project was the attorney-client relationship. Most pieces of advocacy usually involve vociferously advocating for your client’s interests in a brief or in oral argument or at an administrative proceeding. But in this case, we were not asked to advocate for our client’s interest, at least not in a direct way. Instead we were asked to advocate for low-income consumers and individuals generally. Without any client to run through our arguments with, it was a little difficult to really know if our arguments were in the best interest of low-income consumers. And given the academic and scientific nature of our research, we were a little more cautious and reserved about our position because we did not want to overstate our argument and stake out a position that was not really supported by low-income consumers or supported by the research.
Our research also revealed the environmental justice issues surrounding the highly technical administrative process. By doing surface-level research, you quickly realize that these fuel economy standards will have an economic impact across all income levels. Therefore, every income level should be represented in this process. But despite this far-reaching impact, EPA does not make the process accessible to all citizens, especially those with no economic or scientific background. Specifically, EPA does not provide low-income consumers with any meaningful means or opportunity to participate in these administrative processes. Allowing for online comments through an EPA webpage is not enough. The agency will have to take proactive steps to help inform these communities about the process. For example, EPA could host workshops in low-income communities or provide fact sheets on the topic to allow these community members to become educated and informed about the rulemaking process. If three law students have a difficult time researching and providing comment on this administrative decision making, then what hopes do low-income communities have in advocating for themselves.