If It Walks Like a Duck and Talks Like a Duck, It May Still Not Be Sauce for the Gander

Posted on August 23, 2019 by Seth Jaffe

Earlier this week, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals held that the “Wehrum Memo,” which reversed EPA’s longstanding policy of “once in, always in” regarding MACT jurisdiction, was not final agency action subject to judicial review.  Like Judge Rogers, I dissent. 

The majority makes much of its effort to clarify this “byzantine” area of the law.  My take is that, to the extent the court has succeeded in that effort, it is only by reducing the law to this simple rule:  If the guidance document appears to impose obligations on the regulated community, then it is a regulation and can be challenged.  If it lessens obligations on the regulated community, then it is guidance and may not be challenged.

This may benefit my clients, but seems an odd view of the law.

The majority and dissent agreed that the Wehrum Memo was the “consummation” of EPA’s decision making process.  The question thus became whether it constituted an agency action “by which rights or obligations have been determined, or from which legal consequences will flow.”  The Court concluded that the Wehrum Memo does not have such an effect, because parties currently subject to MACT can only take advantage of EPA’s new policy by seeking to amend their Title V permit, and states can ignore the Wehrum Memo and permits can, in any case, always be appealed.

However, as Judge Rogers’s dissent noted, the Court pretty much had to ignore the decision Appalachian Power v. EPA, in which the Court stated that “’rights’ may not be created, but ‘obligations’ certain are….  The entire Guidance … reads like a ukase.”

When one reads Appalachian Power together with Sackett v. EPA, one conclusion becomes clear – courts are not going to allow agencies to promulgate guidance that allows them to exercise coercion against regulated entities who face significant costs and risks if they ignore the enforcement implications of agency “guidance.”

On the other hand, the courts seem to have concluded, if the guidance benefits the regulated community, then there is no harm to making those who want to challenge the guidance wait until some formal appellate opportunity becomes ripe at some point in the future.  However, as Judge Rogers pointed out, “legal consequences flow” from the Wehrum Memo as soon as major sources take enforceable limits to get below MACT thresholds.

I’m very skeptical that the decision contributes towards “clarifying this somewhat gnarled field of jurisprudence,” unless the Court really does intend the law to be that regulated entities can challenge guidance, but others cannot.