Deference to EPA on the Wane?

Posted on July 13, 2015 by Renee Cipriano

The Supreme Court’s latest opinion in an environmental rule challenge, this to the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard, or MATS, raises more questions than it answers.  As discussed on this blog site (see here, here and here,) the Court in Michigan v. EPA held that EPA had not reasonably considered costs when determining to regulate power plant mercury emissions.  EPA must factor cost into its initial determination that it is “appropriate and necessary” to regulate hazardous pollutants from power plants.  The Court passed no judgment on whether EPA can meet that burden. 

At the heart of the issue was Congress’ acknowledgement that the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments would subject power plants to numerous controls to reduce sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulates.  Section 112 of the Act requires EPA to regulate power plants if “regulation is appropriate and necessary after considering the results of the study.”  Congress further acknowledged that these measures also might reduce hazardous air pollutants, and that no one knew at the time whether additional controls would be required to protect human health from air toxics emitted by power plants. 

To determine that, EPA was required to conduct a study.  In 1998, EPA’s study concluded that regulation of coal and oil fired power plants was “appropriate and necessary.”  EPA reaffirmed this finding in 2012, noting that mercury and other hazardous air pollutants were “appropriate” to regulate because they posed a risk to human health and the environment and that controls were available to reduce the pollutants.  EPA found that it was “necessary” to regulate because other pollutant emission limits and requirements did not eliminate the risks. 

The Court, in a 5-4 decision written by Justice Scalia, analyzed EPA’s action through the Chevron deference standard, determining that “EPA strayed far beyond those bounds when it read §7412(n)(1) to mean that it could ignore cost when deciding whether to regulate power plants.”  Ultimately, the Court held that “Chevron allows agencies to choose among competing reasonable interpretations of a statute; it does not license interpretive gerrymanders under which an agency keeps parts of statutory context it likes while throwing away parts it does not.”  Id. at 9.

The Court went on to reject EPA’s contention that it need not factor cost into its initial determination to regulate because the agency must take cost into consideration when later determining how much to regulate.  The Court colorfully remarked that:  “By EPA’s logic, someone could decide whether it is ‘appropriate’ to buy a Ferrari without thinking about cost, because he plans to think about cost later when deciding whether to upgrade the sound system.” The Court’s strong language cautioning EPA to use “reasoned decision making” and not “gerrymander” statutory requirements should give EPA pause as it is set to promulgate greenhouse gas reduction measures for power plants in its Clean Power Plan this summer.  Numerous comments filed in the so-called Clean Power Plan rulemaking docket have charged EPA with overstepping its statutory boundaries, and the Court seems to be signaling its disfavor of such action.

Since the decision, speculation as to whether and how EPA will fix MATS has been rampant. 

  • Will EPA abandon MATS completely, requesting vacatur?  Not likely.  In public remarks and testimony before a Congressional subcommittee during the week of July 6, Administrator Gina McCarthy cited the health benefits already achieved by the rule, indicating the agency would not back down.
  • Can EPA fix the rule based on the current administrative record?  Some believe that EPA can simply re-jigger its existing analysis and logic, fronting the cost issue in the “appropriate and necessary” finding, perhaps calling this a “technical amendment” to the rule. 
  • Will EPA seek a stay of the existing rule while it recalculates costs and re-proposes the rule?  Because the rule went into effect in April 2015, companies already have installed a range of controls from activated carbon injection to installation of flue gas desulfurization equipment.  Each type of control has costs and benefits, as well as impact on other pollutants.  Many of these controls may remain operational to comply with other CAA requirements; therefore, a stay may have disproportionate impacts on industry members as some cease to operate controls and others continue to operate them.
  • But could EPA’s re-proposal result in even more stringent emission limits?   Absolutely.  Would EPA be wise to lower the standards further?  Given the cost and disruption caused by MATS so far, absolutely not.
  • And how will any of these possibilities affect the “already regulated” argument that will be used to attack the Clean Power Plan?  Section 111(d), the basis for the Clean Power Plan, prohibits regulation (whether of the source or the pollutant remains to be decided) if a Section 112 standard exists.  So if MATS goes away, does the legal basis for the Clean Power Plan become stronger?

How the ongoing, never-ending EPA effort to achieve hazardous pollutant reductions from power plants will play out remains to be seen.  The Supreme Court’s close reading of the directives contained in the statute, coupled with its references to balanced costs and benefits, leaves the impression that any rule with wide reach better be well-reasoned and justified.  No doubt EPA is taking notice. 

WILL POWER PLANT HAZARDOUS AIR POLLUTION SURVIVE MICHIGAN V. EPA?

Posted on July 8, 2015 by Leslie Carothers

Twenty-five years in the making, the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations to reduce emissions of mercury and other hazardous air pollutants (HAPS) from power plants recently ran aground in the Supreme Court.  As discussed in this blog site last week, (see here and here,) the majority opinion by Justice Scalia in Michigan v. EPA held that EPA erred in failing to consider cost when it made the threshold statutory finding that listing of power plants for regulation was “appropriate” under a special provision for power plants in the hazardous pollutant sections of the Clean Air Act. 

The dissenters, in an opinion by Justice Kagan, disagreed that costs had to be considered at the initial listing stage.  She contended that costs were properly addressed when specific standards and requirements were developed for various source categories in the course of the normal rulemaking process, and emphasized that a final cost-benefit analysis was conducted to evaluate and support the decisions made. 

Although Justice Scalia was at pains to say that the Court was not specifying the details of the cost analysis required, the majority was plainly troubled by the agency’s findings that the benefits of the mercury controls alone were valued at an annual value of only  $4-6 million compared to an annual cost of $9.6 billion.  However, mercury was not the only HAP controlled by the rule, and the co-benefits of incidental removal of other toxic fine particulate pollutants were estimated at $36-90 billion in EPA’s cost-benefit analysis.  Those big numbers reflect robust scientific evidence of the incidence of illness and death caused by particulate emissions. 

The majority did not address whether such co-benefits could be relied upon in a determination that the cost of the power plant rules was “appropriate.“ The D.C. Circuit will have to define the terms of EPA’s redo of the cost analysis.  We are likely to hear more about counting of co-benefits in cost benefit comparisons, an issue also presented in EPA’s proposed Clean Power Rule for power plant greenhouse gas emissions.  Reducing carbon emissions also reduces particulate emissions even more, and the monetized benefits of that effect exceed the harder to estimate benefits achieved in slowing global warming. 

Public Health and Environmental Consequences of the Decision

Despite the Supreme Court’s action, commentators on both sides of the issues agree that major benefits of the regulation will not be lost.  A trade publication estimated in May that half of the power plants subject to the rule have already installed the required emission control technology to meet multiple EPA air pollution rules, in addition to the hazardous pollutant rule.   Another 200 plants given an extra year to comply are installing and testing equipment.  Several dozen plants accounting for only 1% of industry capacity reportedly are the remaining uncontrolled sources that will continue to operate without controls or plans to install them until the Michigan case is concluded. 

Many companies that have complied with the rules are doubtless disappointed to see the perennial “free riders” get another reprieve; some intervened on EPA’s side in the Michigan case to complain about unfair competition from uncontrolled plants.  But the majority of power plants, to their credit, are already delivering the public health and environmental benefits of the rule for the community.  

Citizens unhappy with the continuing failure to regulate old coal plants may wish to support the divestment movement, recently joined by Georgetown University, in dumping coal company securities.  The day Michigan v. EPA was decided, the stock of three major coal producers rose about 10%.  If the price jump holds, now looks like a good time to sell.

Can the Majority and the Dissent Both Be Wrong? The Supreme Court Remands the MATS Rule

Posted on June 30, 2015 by Seth Jaffe

In Jonathan Cannon’s excellent post on Monday’s Supreme Court decision in Michigan v. EPA, he noted that the majority and the minority aren’t actually that far apart in their views on whether EPA must consider costs in this rulemaking.  I have a slightly different take:  They may not be that far apart, but they’re both wrong.  

In fact, the issue in Michigan v. EPA seems so simple that the MATS rule could have been affirmed in a two-page opinion.  Judge Scalia notes that the word “appropriate” – on which the entire 44 pages of the majority, concurring, and dissenting opinions focus – is “capacious”.   I agree.  If so, and if Chevron means anything, “appropriate” is surely capacious enough to allow for an interpretation that does not include cost considerations.  That should have been the end of the case.

I do feel compelled to note, however, that Justice Kagan’s dissent also got it wrong, in at least three ways:

  • I think she’s flat wrong to suggest that, because the MATS “floor” is based on the top 12% of facilities already in operation, that means that establishment of the floor already takes cost into account. As Justice Scalia cogently notes, those existing facilities may well have been under their own regulatory duress – a duress that may not have considered cost.
  • Justice Kagan confuses cost-benefit analysis and cost-effectiveness analysis. For any given goal sought by EPA, the various options provided by the MATS rule may allow power generators to attain the goal in the most cost-effective means possible, but if even the most cost-effective approach were to yield $10B in costs and $10M in benefits, that would fail the cost-benefit test for most people.
  • Finally, and most importantly, Justice Kagan got the consequences wrong. Instead of suggesting, as she did, that the majority decision,
 "deprives the American public of the pollution control measures that the responsible Agency, acting well within its delegated authority, found would save many, many lives,"  
she should have made the point that the majority decision will have no impact on EPA or the MATS rule.  The Supreme Court did not vacate the rule; it merely remanded the rule to the Court of Appeals.  Justice Kagan’s position should have been that EPA still has sufficient discretion, even on the existing record, to defend the MATS rule within the confines of the majority opinion.  Instead, Justice Kagan gave ammunition to those who oppose the rule, by suggesting that it cannot be saved.

A pox on both their houses.

Justices Agree Cost Matters, but Differ as to When

Posted on June 30, 2015 by Jonathan Z. Cannon

In Michigan v. EPA yesterday the Supreme Court held, 5-4, that EPA unreasonably declined to consider costs in deciding to regulate emissions of hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) from electric power plants.  At issue was the Agency’s interpretation of the Clean Air Act’s “appropriate and necessary” threshold for regulating emissions from power plants under Section 112.  The industry and state petitioners argued that the Agency could not reasonably interpret the phrase as excluding consideration of costs, whereas EPA contended that it could limit consideration of costs to a later phase of the regulatory process – i.e., the setting of emissions standards.

In Environment in the Balance: The Green Movement and the Supreme Court, I describe the competing cultural paradigms that orient us on environmental issues – paradigms immediately recognizable to anyone who works in environmental law and policy.  On the one hand, the new ecological model emphasizes the interconnectedness and fragility of natural systems and the importance of collective restraint in protecting those systems.  (Pope Francis’ Laudato Si embodies this model.)  On the other, the dominant social paradigm emphasizes individualism, entrepreneurial effort, and economic growth.  The postures of the justices in the Court’s environmental cases often reflect the influence of these paradigms.  Conservatives such as Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito tend to align in environmental cases with the dominant paradigm; liberals such as Justices Ginsburg, Kagan and Sotomayor with the ecological.  In the middle are Justice Kennedy, a conservative who has nevertheless been responsive to the ecological model in important cases, and Justice Breyer, a liberal who has expressed concern about extending environmental protections regardless of costs, as in his separate opinions in Whitman v. American Trucking Associations, Inc. and Entergy Corp. v. Riverkeeper, Inc. 

Consistent with these alignments, Michigan v. EPA revealed divergent responses among the justices to the economic burdens of environmental regulation.  Breyer held with his pro-environmentalist colleagues; Kennedy swung this time with the anti-regulatory faction; and the other justices lined up predictably according to their preferred worldviews.  But the divergence was less than it might have been, and the competing opinions reflected common ground among the justices on the importance of considering costs in environmental regulation to avoid “disproportionate outcomes.”  

Justice Scalia’s opinion for the Court argued that “reasonable regulation ordinarily requires paying attention to the advantages and disadvantages [i.e., costs] of agency decisions.”  (Scalia pointedly cites Breyer’s concurring opinion in Entergy here.)  Against a backdrop of the potential for burdensome and inefficient regulation, “appropriate and necessary” could not reasonably be read “as an invitation to ignore costs.”  That the agency did prepare and consider a cost-benefit analysis in the standard-setting phase did not salvage the validity of the threshold determination.  Costs were relevant at both stages.  As he did in his opinion for the Court in Entergy, Justice Scalia walked back the potentially expansive holding in American Trucking, which ruled that the Clean Air Act prevented consideration of costs in setting National Ambient Air Quality Standards; that decision, he wrote, stands only for “the modest principle” that EPA is not allowed to consider costs where Congress has used language that excludes them. 

Justice Kagan’s dissent (joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer and Sotomayor) agreed with the majority that rational regulation is generally not cost-blind: “absent a contrary indication from Congress” regulatory agencies must take costs into account.  But she differed from the Court in arguing that EPA’s consideration of costs in the standard-setting phase satisfied the requisites of reasonableness.  EPA’s cost-benefit analysis for the standards showed that the benefits (including the co-benefits of further reductions in particulate matter emissions) outweighed the costs by a factor of three to nine – a reasonable return indeed.  

Michigan v. EPA suggests a presumption, adhered to unanimously by the Court, that where Congress has not specifically addressed consideration of costs, agencies are required to consider them, because it would be unreasonable for them not to.  Only where Congress has evidenced its intent to preclude consideration of costs (the narrow niche to which American Trucking is now confined) are agencies free to ignore them.  Apart from the specific issues in the case, this is a significant development in the Court’s approach to regulatory review.  With both factions presuming that costs should be considered, the issue was not whether but when.