Should Courts Defer to EPA’s Scientific Expertise if EPA Gets Rid of Its Expertise?

Posted on April 6, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

Earlier this week, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected challenges to the Federal Implementation Plan EPA promulgated after finding that Arizona’s regional haze State Implementation Plan was inadequate.  I think that the result is both correct and unsurprising.

However, one part of the opinion – a recitation of black-letter law – caught my eye.  In discussing the standard of review, the court noted that the arbitrary and capricious standard is “highly deferential.”  No surprise there.  It also noted that courts are particularly deferential when reviewing agency scientific determinations.  Also no surprise.

And yet….

What happens if EPA eliminates all of its climate science expertise, and then eliminates the Endangerment Finding?  Certainly, a court could still recite the traditional level of deference, but then note that “deference is not abdication” and rule that EPA’s decision must be reversed even under the deferential threshold.

And yet….

What happens if the Trump administration repeatedly makes regulatory decisions based on a “scientific” viewpoint that is so broadly rejected by the scientific community that “scientific” must be put in quotation marks?  Might courts at some point conclude that EPA has forfeited the deference normally given to agency scientific decisions?

Just asking.  It’s purely a hypothetical, of course.

Yes, Another Blow, but not a Knockout

Posted on August 28, 2013 by Ralph Child

A recent post from Mary Ellen Ternes characterized the August 23, 2013 decision in EME Homer City Generation as another blow to EPA’s ability to enforce against long ago violations of the requirement to obtain New Source Review.

The Third Circuit’s decision certainly is a blow to EPA’s NSR enforcement initiative, but not nearly a knock-out.

First, the decision depended on the fact that neither the Clean Air Act or Pennsylvania’s EPA-enforceable State Implementation Plan expressly requires a major source to operate in compliance with the results of a New Source Review.  But some states do have that requirement in their EPA-enforceable SIPs, as the Third Circuit recognized in distinguishing other cases.  In such states, major sources that did not go through NSR as allegedly required at the time of construction or modification should still anticipate potential EPA enforcement via the SIP. 

Second, even where it is not illegal to operate in compliance with NSR, the question is still open whether the government may obtain injunctive relief anyway.  In United States v. United States Steel Company (N.D. Indiana), the Court held on August 21, 2013 that no penalties could be imposed at law because there is no federally enforceable requirement in Indiana to operate in accordance with the results of an NSR.  Yet the Court went on to  hold that the United States still can seek injunctive relief against a plant that allegedly violated the NSR requirement.  The Court reasoned that because the sovereign is not subject to laches, the government remains able to invoke the Court’s equitable powers and to seek an injunction to correct the violation.

On to the Seventh Circuit?

Would You Like Some Unintended Consequences With That Tea?

Posted on February 6, 2013 by Linda Benfield

Wisconsin has a proud tradition of strong political opinions.  Recent Tea-Party backed legislation in Wisconsin limiting the power of government will be interesting to follow as the consequences play out, particularly in the environmental arena. 

In March 2011, Wisconsin’s then-new Republican Governor Scott Walker and the Republican legislature passed the Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill, the state law that famously limits the collective-bargaining rights of public employees. Following that, the legislature passed 2011 Wisconsin Act 21, which includes a “limited government” provision that prohibits any “agency [from] implement[ing] or enforc[ing] any standard, requirement, or threshold, including as a term or condition of any license issued by the agency, unless that standard, requirement, or threshold is explicitly required or explicitly permitted by statute or by a rule that has been promulgated in accordance with [state law].” 

This will play out in a number of ways.  Like other state environmental agencies, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (“WDNR”) relies significantly on guidance documents to implement otherwise complex programs. A number of issues are addressed only in WDNR guidance, not in explicit regulations.  These include sediment cleanup standards; references to “sediment” were intentionally removed from the state soil cleanup standards.  This not only affects state cleanup programs, but also raises issues as to whether the state sediment cleanup standards can be “applicable or relevant and appropriate requirements” under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act.  Similarly, the WDNR’s vapor intrusion sampling, analysis and remediation protocols are contained only in state and federal guidance documents. 

Recently, the U.S. EPA chose language in a proposed SIP denial that adds fuel to some permitting arguments.  In 2008, U.S. EPA required revisions to State Implementation Plans (“SIPs”) with respect to PM2.5 permitting; Wisconsin made regulatory changes, and requested SIP approval in 2011.  On December 18, 2012, the U.S. EPA proposed disapproval of the SIP revision.  77 Fed. Reg. 74817 (2012).  According to U.S. EPA, Wisconsin’s submission is deficient because the Wisconsin regulations do not “explicitly” define the condensable component of PM10 and PM2.5 emissions, and do not “explicitly” identify SO2 and NOx as precursors to PM2.5.  The U.S. EPA’s disapproval language gives the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources the usual additional work to propose and finalize regulatory changes to address the deficiency, but it also gives regulated sources an additional argument that the WDNR lacks the authority to regulate condensable particulate matter and PM2.5  precursors.

COOPERATIVE FEDERALISM AND THE CLEAN AIR ACT ENCOUNTER TURBULENCE

Posted on December 14, 2012 by William Session

All of us know that enforcement of the Clean Air Act’s (CAA) proscriptions against pollutant air emissions is premised on the concept of Acooperative federalism.  We know that the CAA’s policy development and enforcement regime is based upon a division of state and federal regulatory responsibility.  Stated simply, the concept is that the federal government, through the EPA, sets standards for permissible emissions of substances affecting ambient air quality while individual states retain responsibility for implementing programs to enforce these standards. 

The States’ implementation mechanisms are aptly titled State Implementation Plans or SIPs.  SIPs are employed to demonstrate that federal and state air pollution regulations will allow counties in a particular state to meet federally mandated ambient air quality standards (NAAQS).  The SIP process approval results in pollution control requirements which govern and often times unduly complicate compliance efforts of state regulators.  They can also increase compliance costs borne by the regulated community.  One aspect of that conundrum is the fact that when States fail to meet deadlines for attaining these standards, the regulators themselves can face sanctions from EPA and even suits by the public.  Litigation and its costs complicate matters further.

As some regulators in Pennsylvania recently observed . . . [T]he current aggressive schedules for NAAQS reviews, State Implementation Plan (SIP) development and promulgation of Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) standards are significant problems. Taken together, these inefficiencies are a resource drain on EPA, the states, the regulated community and the economy as a whole.  The messy situation described in this quote is the subject of this blog.

The turbulence inherent in this divided relationship has escalated in recent times fraying the long-standing statutory regulatory compact between the federal government and the States.   

An instructive example of the conflict of enforcement concept and reality engendered by the CAA’s cooperative federalism scheme was clearly highlighted in the recent case WildEarth Guardians v. Jackson.  This case dealt with EPA’s delays in approving SIPs or pollution control plans affecting discharges of fine particulate matter or PM2.5.  The plaintiffs in Wild Earth alleged that EPA failed to take final action under section 110(k)(2) and (3) of the CAA to approve SIP submittals in twenty (20) states meeting applicable requirements respecting the 2006 PM2.5NAAQS. 

In 2006, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia had found that EPA’s PM2.5 NAAQS had to change because it failed to adequately protect human health.  A change in this NAAQS required a change in States SIPs.  SIPs were proposed but languished at EPA.  Five years later, the plaintiffs in Wild Earth alleged that . . . [W]ithout infrastructure plans, citizens are not afforded full protection against the harmful effects of PM2.5 while seeking declaratory and injunctive relief.
 
Shortly after the suit was filed the plaintiffs and the EPA entered into a settlement. A consent decree called for the EPA to approve or disapprove SIP submittals for the 2006 PM2.5 standard as early as September 12, 2012 for some of the states involved and as late as February 13, 2013 for others.  The Consent Decree was entered and the case dismissed in May of 2012.  Case closed and compliance efforts back on track? 

Unfortunately, many of the underlying issues raised in Wild Earth, specifically, the lack of cooperation between the States and the federal government on implementation of the PM2.5 NAAQS have raged on unabated.  For example, eleven (11) states sued the EPA over the agency’s alleged failure to promulgate final NAAQS for PM2.5.  In New York v. Jackson the plaintiffs are seeking a declaration that EPA is in violation of Section 109(d)(1) requesting that EPA review, propose and promulgate a new PM2.5 NAAQS.  On June 14, 2012, EPA announced a proposal to strengthen the NAAQS PM2.5.  Almost simultaneously, the D.C. Circuit issued an order refusing to set a schedule for EPA to issue a new PM2.5 NAAQS. Am.Farm Bureau v. EPA.

These developments will inevitably spawn additional delays in PM2.5 related SIP modifications and EPA approvals. That is the point of these comments on this small corner of CAA regulation and enforcement.  Is the cooperative federalism underpinning of the CAA still workable?  Can court’s recognize and respect the concept when regulatory policy, administrative lethargy and real human health concerns collide? These comments and observations have focused on the PM2.5 issue mainly because it has come up in some recent work in our office. 

Without doubt other and more far-reaching examples of regulatory and judicial “turbulence abound, i.e., the raging fight over the EPA’s Cross State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR).  In a dissenting opinion on the CSAPR case, on the concept of cooperative federalism, Judge Rogers had this to say. . . [T] he result is an unsettling of the consistent precedent of this court strictly enforcing jurisdictional limits, a redesign of Congress’s vision of cooperative federalism between the states and the federal government in implementing the Clean Air Act based on the court’s own notions of absurdity and logic that are unsupported by a factual record, and a trampling on this court’s precedent on which the Environmental Protection Agency was entitled to rely . . . .  Whew! 

So what are CAA practitioners to make of the mess Judge Rogers eloquently describes?  This blog entry offers no practical guidance for those laboring for an aggrieved client nor laments a bad result impairing enforcement prerogatives of the regulators.  Instead, I only point out that it may be time for a concerted effort to step back and reconsider whether the CAA’s cooperative federalism’s bifurcation of rule promulgation and enforcement continues to make scientific, policy or common sense in today’s world.

A VIEW FROM TEXAS: FIFTH CIRCUIT VACATES EPA DISAPPROVAL OF TEXAS FLEXIBLE PERMIT PROGRAM

Posted on August 30, 2012 by Patricia Finn Braddock

On August 13, 2012, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) disapproval of the Texas Flexible Permit Program (TFPP) had been arbitrary and capricious, an abuse of discretion, not in accordance with law, and unsubstantiated by substantial evidence on the record taken as a whole.  Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit granted the petition for review, vacated EPA’s disapproval of the Texas plan and remanded the matter to EPA.

The TFPP, a Minor new source review (NSR) permit program, had been submitted to EPA in November 1994 as a revision to the Texas State Implementation Plan (SIP).  The TFPP authorized modifications to existing facilities without additional regulatory review provided the emissions increase would not exceed an aggregate limit specified in the permit.

Despite the mandate in the Clean Air Act (CAA) that EPA approve or disapprove a SIP revision within eighteen months of its submission, EPA failed to make a determination on the TFPP for more than sixteen years.  By the time that EPA announced its disapproval, the State of Texas had issued approximately 140 permits under the TFPP.  And despite the excessive delay in announcing its disapproval of the TFPP, EPA found time to promptly notify flexible permit holders in Texas that their facilities were operating without a SIP-approved air permit and that they were risking federal sanctions unless SIP-approved air permits, requiring current Best Available Control Technology, were obtained.

The State of Texas and ten industry and business groups subsequently filed suit challenging EPA’s disapproval, which had been based on three primary arguments: 1) the program might allow major sources to evade major NSR; 2) the provisions for monitoring, recordkeeping and reporting (MRR) are inadequate, and 3) the methodology for calculating permit emissions caps lacks clarity and is not replicable.  Two of the justices on the 3-judge panel court rejected each of EPA’s contentions, with the third justice dissenting.

The majority rejected EPA’s contention that the TFPP allowed major sources to evade Major NSR because the TFPP includes three rules that affirmatively require compliance with Major NSR, and EPA could not identify a single provision in the CAA or the CAA implementing regulations that empowered EPA to disapprove a SIP that did not also contain an express negative statement that the Minor NSR permit could not be used to evade Major NSR.  Further the court noted that in its briefings, EPA had conceded that language explicitly prohibiting circumvention of the Major NSR requirements is not ordinarily a minimum NSR SIP program element.  75 Fed. Reg. at 41,318-19.

The majority also rejected EPA’s contention that the TFPP allowed the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality executive director too much discretion in determining MRR requirements in a Minor NSR permit and that this amount of discretion is contrary to EPA policy.  The court found that EPA could not identify an independent and authoritative standard in the CAA or its implementing regulations that required MRR requirements to be specified in a SIP, rather than based on the size, needs, and type of facility authorized in a Minor NSR permit.  In addition, the court found that EPA failed to identify the purported policy of disfavoring “director discretion” in any comments that EPA submitted to the State of Texas on the TFPP regulations or in EPA’s disapproval of the requested Texas SIP revision.  Thus, the court held that the purported policy is not in the record on which the court must review EPA’s disapproval under the APA.  Although not a factor in its decision, the majority also noted that “other recent EPA action tends to not only undercut the assertion of such a policy but also to give the impression that EPA invented this policy for the sole purpose of disapproving Texas’ proposal.”

Finally, the majority rejected all of the arguments EPA gave for finding the TFPP to be deficient.   Among other things, the court concluded that EPA could not identify a single provision in the CAA or EPA’s Minor NSR regulations  that requires a state to specify the method of calculating emissions caps or to demonstrate replicability in its SIP or as a condition of approval of a state’s Minor NSR program.    Similar to its comments on EPA’s second contention, the majority also noted that EPA appears to have adopted the third test solely for application to the TFPP.

Due to the uncertain status of the TFPP and the risk of federal enforcement, most flexible permit holders requested that the flexible permits be altered to reflect that the authorization meets the air permitting requirements already in the EPA-approved Texas SIP.  Thus, EPA succeeded in gutting a Minor NSR permit program that it had wrongly disapproved, but it did not achieve any substantive changes in permit requirements.  Although the majority vacated EPA’s disapproval of the TFPP and remanded the matter to the agency, EPA is not likely to act and facilities in Texas are not likely to decide on whether to pursue new flexible permits until after the November election.

Three Strikes Against Deference in the Same Month

Posted on August 27, 2012 by Robert Brubaker

In split decisions over a two-week period on entirely different Clean Air Act issues, three different Circuits refused to give deference to EPA interpretations.

The merits of the three decisions – concerning the latitude States have in designing "minor" new source permitting programs approvable in their State Implementation Plans, the attributes that make a source "major" for Clean Air Act permitting purposes, and the limits on EPA's authority to manage emissions transported from one State to another – are far reaching and significant on many levels.  One interesting common thread underlying the merits is how the three different Circuits approached the doctrine of deference.

In Texas v. EPA, No. 10-60614 (5th Cir., Aug. 13, 2012), the Fifth Circuit vacated EPA's disapproval of a State Implementation Plan revision Texas submitted to make its Minor New Source Review rules more flexible (by using a "bubble" concept for reducing the types of minor changes needing separate preconstruction permits).  The Court dismissed EPA's position that the Texas rules conflicted with EPA's policy against State Implementation Plan provisions that allow "director discretion."  The majority concluded "[t]here is, in fact, no independent and authoritative standard in the CAA or its implementing regulations requiring that a state director's discretion be cabined in the way that the EPA suggests" and "[t]therefore, the EPA's insistence on some undefined limit on a director's discretion is . . . based on a standard that the CAA does not empower EPA to enforce."

In Summit Petroleum Corp. v. U.S. EPA, Nos. 09-4348 and 10-4572 (6th Cir., Aug. 7, 2012), the Sixth Circuit vacated EPA's determination that, because they are "functionally related," natural gas production wells are "adjacent" to the gas processing plant to which the output of the wells is pipelined.  The practical consequence is that if the wells and the plant are "adjacent," their potential emissions would be aggregated and would exceed the threshold level requiring a Title V permit, whereas if they are not "adjacent," they would be separately subject to less onerous "minor" source permitting requirements.  The Court relied upon the dictionary definition, etymology, and case law on the meaning of "adjacent" to conclude that "adjacency is purely physical and geographical."  The Court wrote "we apply no deference in our review of EPA's interpretation of ['adjacent']" since the word is "unambiguous," and "we hold that the EPA has interpreted its own regulatory term in a manner unreasonably inconsistent with its plain meaning . . .."

In EME Homer City Generation v. EPA, No. 11-1302 (D.C. Cir., August 21, 2012), the D.C. Circuit vacated EPA's Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR), also known as the Transport Rule, requiring 28 States to curtail sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from one State deemed by EPA to "contribute significantly to nonattainment" of National Ambient Air Quality Standards for ozone or fine particulate matter in another State, or to "interfere with maintenance" of such standards in another State.  The Court held that the way in which EPA quantified allowable emissions from the various States exceeded the Agency's statutory authority, and that EPA's preemptive implementation of State Implementation Plan requirements was "incompatible with the basic text and structure of the Clean Air Act" and contrary to the "first-implementer role" reserved for the States by the Act.  The Court concluded that EPA's interpretation of the "good neighbor" provision – one of more than 20 State Implementation Plan requirements in Section 110(a)(2) of the Act – offended the principle that Congress does not "hide elephants in mouseholes" (citing the Supreme Court's 2001 decision in Whitman v. American Trucking Ass'ns).  EPA's interpretation of its authority to promulgate Federal Implementation Plans before giving the States an opportunity to submit State Implementation Plans after EPA determined the level of "good neighbor" emission reductions required was rejected on both step 1 and step 2 Chevron grounds.

Three swallows do not a summer make, but if Courts continue to delve more deeply into the merits of EPA decisionmaking under the Clean Air Act and similar statutes in this era of Congressional gridlock, the consequences could be profound for supporters and opponents of EPA actions.

5th Circuit Upholds EPA Approval of Affirmative Defense for Unplanned Startup, Shutdown, and Malfunction Events

Posted on August 7, 2012 by Karen Crawford

On July 30, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals handed down an opinion finding that EPA was within its authority to approve in part and to disapprove in part the most recent revisions to the state implementation plan (“SIP”) that Texas submitted to EPA in 2006 [Luminant Generation Co. LLC v. EPA, No. 10-60934 (5th Cir. July 20, 2012)]. EPA's action, effective on January 10, 2011, allowed an affirmative defense for unplanned startup, shutdown, and malfunction (“SSM”) events, but it disapproved the portion of the SIP revision providing an affirmative defense against civil penalties for planned SSM events. 

Several groups of Environmental Petitioners (including the Environmental Integrity Project,  Sierra Club, Environmental Texas Citizen Lobby, Citizens for Environmental Justice, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, Air Alliance Houston, and Community In-Power and Development Association) challenged EPA’s partial approval of that part of the SIP which created an affirmative defense for unplanned SSM events.  The State of Texas and several Industry Petitioners and Intervenors (Luminant Generation Company, Sandow Power Company, Big Brown Power Company, Oak Grove Management Company, Texas Oil & Gas Association, Texas Association of Business, Texas Association of Manufacturers, and Texas Chemical Council)  challenged that part of EPA’s action which disapproved the creation of an affirmative defense against civil penalties for planned SSM events.

A three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit determined that EPA's decision was valid unless "arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law."  Applying that standard of review and citing myriad cases upholding the premise that a state is afforded "broad authority to determine the methods and particular control strategies [it] will use to achieve the statutory requirements," including consistency with the Clean Air Act and the attainment and maintenance of NAAQS of the Act, (referenced throughout the opinion as Chevron deference), the court found the EPA's administrative decision-making process had been "consistently formal and deliberative prior to and during its promulgation of final rules under the Act." In particular, the court cited the reasoning EPA set forth in the final rule to explain its decision approving the portion of the state's SIP which "squarely adheres to its past policy guidance" and observed that EPA’s decision was "the result of a formal and deliberative decision-making process."  The court also found that the EPA's interpretation of the Clean Air Act was based on a permissible construction of the statute because the agency found: (1) the affirmative defense for unplanned SSM activity was narrowly tailored; (2) the affirmative defense did not interfere with the Act's requirement that a SIP's emission limitations be continuous or with the state's ability to enforce emission limitations; and (3) the affirmative defense did not interfere with any other applicable requirement of the Act, including the attainment of national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS).  The court was not persuaded by Environmental Petitioners' arguments, in part because the wording of the affirmative defense excludes all emissions that could "cause or contribute to an exceedance of the NAAQS, PSD increments, or a condition of air pollution" and thereby was not inconsistent with EPA's past policy and guidance, referencing a 1999 Memorandum of Steven A. Herman relating to excess emissions during SSM events.

In evaluating the state’s and Industry Petitioners' arguments, the court – after applying virtually the same analysis and criteria – found that EPA had not been arbitrary or capricious in disapproving an affirmative defense for planned SSM events.  In reaching that conclusion, the court relied in large part on the premise that such events and excess emissions from such events were "avoidable."  Further, in upholding the disapproval and denying Texas’s and Industry Petitioners’ request for relief, the court observed that EPA's reasons provided for the disapproval "conform to minimal standards of rationality."