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. 

Further Advice from Air Act Andy: What A Difference A Year – And a Broken Foot – Make

Posted on April 6, 2015 by Andrea Field

On March 25, 2015, the Supreme Court heard 90 minutes of argument in Michigan v. EPA, No. 14-46. Briefing and argument focused on one aspect of EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxic Standards (MATS) Rule: whether EPA unreasonably refused to consider costs in determining if it is appropriate to regulate hazardous pollutants emitted by electric utilities. If you were unable to attend the argument but want to know more about it than you can learn from the press reports, then this “Advice from Air Act Andy” column is for you.

Question: Based on questions asked by the Justices during argument, many predict this will be a 5-4 decision, with Justice Kennedy possibly casting the deciding vote. What do you think?

Air Act Andy: I will preface my answer with the disclosure that a year ago I told my client there was virtually no chance the Court would choose to hear the MATS case. With my prognostication credentials thus firmly established — and keeping in mind that it is unwise (and usually embarrassing) to predict what the Court will do based on the questions asked at oral argument — let me say only that I came away from the argument sensing a 4-3-2 split in the Court.  I leave it to you, gentle reader, to infer more.

Question: Did Justice Breyer and his clerks spend endless hours hypothesizing scenarios for how EPA might have taken costs into account in developing the MATS Rule?

Air Act Andy: Without speculating on how many hours Justice Breyer and his clerks spent thinking about this, I note that he arrived at argument armed with a long list of questions suggesting he was troubled by the idea that EPA might regulate hazardous air pollutant emissions from electric utilities without any consideration of costs. In particular, he asked whether costs had been, or could be, considered in the subcategorization of electric generating units, even if costs were not considered in EPA’s initial listing of those sources.

Question: What did the parties make of Justice Breyer’s focus on subcategorization?

Air Act Andy: I don’t have to speculate here. The government made enough of Justice Breyer’s questions that, one day after argument, the Solicitor General filed a letter with the Court to provide information relevant to “questions pertaining to how EPA assesses whether to establish subcategories of sources” under the pertinent provisions of the Clean Air Act.

Question: Isn’t it unusual to submit a post-argument letter to the Court?

Air Act Andy: The rules of the Court do not specifically cover this sort of filing, and only time will tell how helpful the filing was for the government. It is worth noting, though, that once General Verrilli filed his letter, other parties followed suit. In particular, petitioners’ counsel pointed the Court to specific language in the preamble to the final MATS Rule, 77 Fed. Reg. 9304, 9395 (Feb. 16, 2012), where EPA said it could not, and did not, consider costs during the subcategorization process:

Failing to demonstrate that coal-fired [electric generating units] are different based on emissions, the commenters turn to economic arguments, asserting that failing to subcategorize will impose an economic hardship on certain sources. Congress precluded consideration of costs in setting [technology standard] floors, and it is not appropriate to premise subcategorization on costs either.

Question: On a more personal note, was your trip to the Court less eventful than the last time you were there?

Air Act Andy: Ah, you are referring to my December 11, 2013 visit to the Court. On that snowy day, I arrived at the Court wearing a long, stylish gray cardigan sweater instead of a suit jacket. I was stopped by guards and politely told I would not be allowed to sit in the section reserved for members of the Supreme Court Bar unless I replaced my fashionable sweater with a suit jacket. Someone from the clerk’s office, acting like a fine restaurant’s maitre d’, swiftly provided me with a ladies suit jacket and allowed me into the courtroom. But when I returned to the Court last month to hear argument in Michigan v. EPA, I was not treated like a fashion felon. Instead, Court staff personally escorted me into the courtroom a half hour before anyone else from the public was allowed in the room, gave me a prime seat, and allowed me to sit quietly and take in the majesty of the room. 

Question: What is the reason for the different treatment?

Air Act Andy: Last month, I arrived wearing a foot cast instead of a gray cardigan. I had broken my foot the week before, and the Court’s wonderful staff gave me permission to arrive and get seated early.

Question: So, was it worth it to have a broken foot?

Air Act Andy: I wouldn’t recommend that you drop granite on your foot a week in advance of a trip to the Supreme Court, but being able to sit by myself in the courtroom for a half hour before others were admitted was pretty special.

The Clean Power Plan: NOT Exactly What the Statute Tells EPA To Do

Posted on April 3, 2015 by Richard G. Stoll

As most followers of this blog know, EPA proposed its “Clean Power Plan” for existing electric power plants under the Clean Air Act (CAA) in June 2014. And just this week (March 31), the Obama Administration with great fanfare submitted its 2025 greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions target to the United Nations for the international climate change convention.

The Administration pledged to reduce U.S. GHG emissions by 26-28% (below 2005 levels) by 2025, and the bulk of these reductions are supposed to come from the Plan.  But will the massive reductions EPA claims will result from the Plan ever occur?

Defending the legality of the Plan in an interview published in the March 31 Wall Street Journal, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy claims she is “following the direction of the Supreme Court” and doing “exactly what the statute [CAA] tells us we’re supposed to do.”

Huh? While the Supreme Court has recognized EPA’s authority to regulate GHGs under the CAA, it most certainly has not given EPA the “direction” EPA is taking in its pending proposal. And neither has Congress.

EPA’s Plan would mandate a panoply of groundbreaking controls on energy supply and demand. It would force utilities to use natural gas rather than coal, ramp up renewable energy use (wind, solar), and impose mandates for reducing energy consumption. Yet the CAA provision for which EPA claims authority for all this (§111(d)) only authorizes EPA to impose “standards for emissions” upon “existing sources” of air pollution — such as power plants. The controls must also be “adequately demonstrated.” In the past EPA applied this authority faithfully to the statutory terms, so “sources” that emit pollution are limited to prescribed amounts of emissions.

While EPA’s proposal includes some real emission standards for air pollution sources (power plants), the vast majority of GHG reductions are to come from the energy supply/demand measures that have no basis in the text of the CAA. If you are compelled through these mandates to limit your dishwasher use to specified hours or pay higher rates, is your dishwasher an “existing source” of “air pollution” and are the hourly restrictions “emission standards”? And how can such novel approaches be “adequately demonstrated”?

The Administration tried but failed to obtain amendments to the CAA from Congress to address climate change. EPA’s Plan might have been authorized by that failed effort, and it might be authorized by future legislation. The Plan’s pioneering provisions might arguably reflect good public policy. But under the CAA as it now stands, EPA is not authorized to impose them.

As for “direction” from the Supreme Court? In its recent Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA opinion (June 23, 2014), the Court rejected EPA’s attempt to regulate GHGs by “tailoring” the unambiguous text of the statute. The Clean Power Plan doesn’t just “tailor” the terms of the statute — it attempts to weave new authority out of whole cloth.

Oklahoma Federal Court Says It Lacks Jurisdiction to Award Declaratory Relief to EPA in Clean Air Act Case

Posted on March 23, 2015 by Donald Shandy

On January 15, 2015, Oklahoma Western District Judge Timothy DeGiusti dismissed a declaratory judgment action brought by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) against Oklahoma Gas and Electric Company (OG&E) under the Clean Air Act.  In United States v. Okla. Gas & Elec. Co. , the Court found that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over EPA’s claims.

The litigation involved certain modifications made by OG&E at its Muskogee and Sooner plants.  These modifications occurred more than five (5) years prior to EPA’s suit.  Before commencing each of the projects, OG&E submitted “Project Notifications” to the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) that: (1) stated that each of the modifications would not result in a significant emissions increase; and (2) committed to submitting annual reports supporting this conclusion.  OG&E did not submit detailed emissions calculations.  However, five years of data subsequent to the modifications confirmed that significant emissions increases did not occur. 

Although the underlying dispute revolves around whether OG&E was required to obtain a Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) permit before commencing each of the modifications, EPA did not allege that the projects were “major modifications” or that the projects resulted in “significant emissions increases” from the Sooner or Muskogee plants.  Nor did the government seek penalties for violations of the PSD permit requirements or injunctive relief requiring OG&E to obtain permits, likely seeking to avoid the application of the five year general statute of limitations applicable to government claims for fines, 28 U.S.C. § 2462. Instead, the government only sought a declaration that OG&E did not properly project whether the modifications to the Sooner and Muskogee plants would result in a significant increase in emissions.

Given that the government did not allege a “major modification” or a “significant emissions increase” for any of the projects, the Court found that the government had not presented an actual case or controversy sufficient for the Court's exercise of jurisdiction. 

Even if OG & E failed as a matter of law to evaluate whether the modifications would result in a significant increase in post-modification emissions of regulated pollutants at each facility, that failure to project is not, without more, determinative of whether a PSD permit is required. Unmoored from a claim that the modifications at issue are major modifications, Plaintiffs ask this Court to make a declaration as to a collateral legal issue governing aspects of a future potential suit. EPA's attempt at piecemeal litigation, therefore, cannot withstand the Court's jurisdictional limitations.

The Court also rejected EPA’s novel claim for injunctive relief seeking to require OG&E to properly calculate whether the projects were likely to result in a significant emissions increase prior to construction.

The Court is not aware of any decision in which the injunctive relief requested by EPA has been granted, or for that matter, ever requested. As the parties concede, there is no statutory or regulatory requirement that projections be submitted to EPA or any other regulatory authority in the first instance. And, as the Sixth Circuit addressed in DTE Energy, there is no prior approval required by the agency. Thus, if the Court were to grant the injunctive relief requested by EPA it would be directing OG & E to submit projections where no statutory or regulatory authority for such action exists. The availability of relief of the nature requested by EPA is a matter to be addressed by Congress, not this Court.

This is an important decision limiting EPA’s ability to “second-guess” a facility’s pre-construction permitting calculations in the absence of data demonstrating a significant emissions increase.  

Death of the Malfunction Affirmative Defense (and Common Sense): Can EPA Actually Expect Facility Operators to Predict Future Malfunctions?

Posted on November 24, 2014 by John Jacus

Last September, EPA proposed to supplement a proposed SIP Call to effect the wholesale elimination of “malfunction” affirmative defense provisions in numerous states’ SIPs under the Clean Air Act (CAA).  This supplemental proposed rulemaking was a direct response to a decision of the D.C. Circuit in NRDC. v. EPAEPA’s alarming reaction to the decision in that case is unwarranted, reverses long-standing policy with regard to startup, shutdown and malfunction (SSM) events that has been affirmed by multiple reviewing courts as rational, and would effectively require facility operators to predict future malfunctions and permit for them or prevent them if they are to avoid civil penalties for malfunction-derived excess emissions.  If unable to do so, operators would incur penalties intended to deter their noncompliance, arising from their failure to predict and account for future malfunctions. 

The portion of the NRDC v. EPA decision that addressed affirmative defenses only considered EPA’s authority to create them in private suits under Section 304(a) of the CAA.  The D.C. Circuit found that federal courts, not EPA, have authority under Section 304(a) to apply affirmative defenses in such private suits, on important separation of powers principles.  The court specifically limited its holding to affirmative defenses in the context of citizen suits, noting that “[w]e do not here confront the question whether an affirmative defense may be appropriate in a State Implementation Plan.”  Of course, the vast majority of enforcement actions alleging violations of emissions limits and seeking penalties for such excess emissions are brought by state permitting authorities with delegated programs established in their SIPs.  Most SIPs contain some SSM affirmative defenses, including in cases of a qualifying “malfunction,” which will insulate the operator from civil penalties (though not injunctive relief) if the affirmative defense is properly invoked.  See prior ACOEL blogs on this important topic for more background (“Partners?,” by Steve McKinney, and “5th Circuit Upholds…” by Karen Crawford). 

EPA has long interpreted the CAA to allow states to include at least a limited affirmative defense for malfunctions in their SIPs, and Circuit Courts reviewing challenges to such affirmative defenses have agreed that this is a permissible interpretation of the statute.  More recent cases have narrowed SSM affirmative defenses in response to environmental group petitions, by (1) requiring continuous compliance with permit limits for scheduled, i.e., foreseeable, startup and shutdown emissions, so as not to result in or contribute to a violation of the NAAQS, and (2) clarifying that the protections of the affirmative defense from the imposition of civil penalties for excess emissions do not preclude regulators from seeking injunctive relief in response to a malfunction.  This balance was struck by EPA in the 2013 proposed SIP Call, although many industry stakeholders and states have opposed the elimination of affirmative defenses for excess emissions during startup and shutdown.

EPA’s sole justification for now completely abandoning SSM accommodations is the conclusion that an affirmative defense for malfunctions renders any and all of the seventeen SIPs containing such provisions “substantially inadequate” in the wake of NRDC v. EPA.  Yet that decision does not extend to affirmative defense provisions in SIPs, as noted above, and is therefore not a good reason for disregarding longstanding agency SSM policy.  Indeed, EPA’s wholesale reversal of its SSM Policy is directly contrary to numerous other federal appellate courts that have squarely addressed the issue and held that SIP and Federal Implementation Plan (“FIP”) affirmative defense provisions for malfunction events are consistent with the CAA.  See Luminant Generation Co. v. EPA; Mont. Sulphur & Chemical v. EPA; Ariz. Public Service Co. v. EPA.

Many facilities requiring air permits to operate have complex mechanical and electronic equipment with countless components that, by their nature, may inevitably fail or malfunction at some point, despite an operator’s best efforts and regular maintenance.  Most remaining affirmative defense provisions, based on EPA’s historical direction (and the efforts of Sierra Club and other environmental groups to eliminate all SSM provisions as somehow being illegal), would now be sufficiently tailored (following the 2013 SIP Call) to balance the practical realities of unforeseen component failure and the responsibility of facility operators to minimize excess emissions through adherence to good air pollution control practices.  Indeed, a malfunction affirmative defense may only be invoked in most states when the excess emissions were caused by a sudden, unavoidable breakdown of equipment, or a sudden, unavoidable failure of a process to operate in the normal or usual manner, beyond the reasonable control of the operator. See, e.g., Colorado Air Quality Control Commission Common Provisions Regulation Sect. II.E.1.  SSM affirmative defenses also typically require that operators make repairs as expeditiously as practicable, minimize the amount and duration of excess emissions, and take all reasonably possible steps to minimize the impact of the excess emissions on ambient air quality.  These important and material qualifying pre-conditions to availing oneself of a malfunction affirmative defense ensure that air quality is being protected to the maximum extent practicable, even during malfunctions, consistent with good air pollution control practice. 

Expecting operators to predict the future and imposing stiff penalties when they can’t defies common sense, and ignores centuries of jurisprudence that recognize the need for exceptions due to circumstances beyond one’s reasonable control, such as the universally understood concept of force majeure.  It is perhaps ironic that an agency that has focused upon the use of improved emerging and available technologies to create Next Generation or “NextGen” Compliance requirements simply doesn’t “get it” when a technology or device fails to operate as designed and intended, and then gets a hammer out to whack the operator, as if that will “deter” future malfunctions…bad machine! 

DAYS OF FUTURE PASSED…OR PAST

Posted on November 17, 2014 by Jeff Thaler

November 1967: The Moody Blues release their second album, Days of Future Passed, said to be an influential work of the countercultural, psychedelic era. May 2014: Wolverine goes back in time to rally the X-Men against the Sentinels in Days of Future Past. In between: Ed Muskie and Leon Billings roamed the Earth, particularly the U.S. Senate, and modern-day environmental law was born and thrives.

2014 also is the centennial of the birth of Muskie in the old mill town of Rumford, Maine. On November 15, almost exactly 47 years after release of Future Passed, Harvard Law Professor Richard Lazarus and Leon Billings, Senator Muskie’s former chief of staff, spoke on a panel looking back and to the future of laws like the Clean Air and Water Acts that were unanimously passed by the Senate through the guidance of Muskie and Billings.

Billings spoke of how what Muskie was able to shepherd through Congress and into law involved concepts still pervasive and taken for granted today—such as private attorneys general, nondegradation, open decision-making, the public’s right to breathe healthy air and removal of the right to pollute. He described Muskie’s insistence of and ability to achieve bipartisanship, with allies for the CAA and CWA efforts including such Senators as Baker, Eagleton, Cooper, Bayh, Boggs and Dole, as well as the exhaustive efforts to fully vet and document the need for legislation. For example, for the CWA the Senate Committee held 33 days of hearings with 1721 witnesses, 470 statements and 6,400 pages of testimony, followed by 45 sub-or-full-Committee markup sessions and 39 Conference meetings. 

Billings then focused on two concepts that he said demonstrate Muskie’s ability over 40 years ago to look to the future. The first, “waters of the Unites States” grew out of the Senator’s knowledge of the 1899 Refuse Act; he successfully convinced his colleagues that the Act supported a broad view of “waters of the US” to include, for example, wetlands. Since then, the Supreme Court has gone “at least as far as we had expected, and more broadly than we could have hoped”, said Billings.

The second concept is that of climate change and the Clean Air Act. Billings was very clear: Section 111(d) was no accident, is not being misinterpreted, and Muskie intended there to be a legislative basis for then-unknown or undefined pollution problems like CO2, what Billings now calls the “epitome of the precautionary principle”.  The phrase “selected air pollution agents” almost never made it out of the House-Senate Conference in December 1970, but a compromise was struck so late at night it never made it into the Conference reports. And while no one then envisioned CO2 and climate change, Billings said that if Muskie were alive when the Supreme Court ruled in Massachusetts v EPA that CO2 is a pollutant, he would have said, “Why do you think I put that provision in there in the first place?”

Richard Lazarus then spoke of Senator Muskie’s enduring legacy in the courts as the font of legislative intent underlying many environmental laws, including frequent references to Muskie in court opinions and during oral arguments at the Supreme Court. He also demonstrated that while President Nixon did sign the bills authored by Muskie and had the label of being an environmental President, in fact he was largely using the issue for a short time as a defensive measure to cut off Muskie’s prospects as a potential 1972 Presidential candidate. Richard then showed slides of handwritten notes made by Nixon’s Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman of three discussions with the President: in February 1971, even when they thought environmental protection “has to be done”, at the same time they thought it “is not worth a damn”; in June “should take on environment—it’s not a sacred cow”;  and by July 1971 they wanted to put the “brakes on pollution bills…when we can without getting caught”, and to “reexamine all pollution bills in terms of current economic impact”.

Richard also discussed the current EPA rulemaking under 111, especially referencing the term “best system of emission reduction”; EPA’s June 2014 legal memorandum in support of its rulemaking proposal used Senator Muskie’s own words concerning “system” as encompassing the potential for emission reductions to occur outside the fence, and to include more than just controls. He said that for EPA, Muskie is its “Mr. Clean”.

During Q&A, both panelists discussed the partisanship of the past 10-20 years contrasted with during Muskie’s era. Billings mentioned how during Muskie’s opening presentation of the Clean Air Act on the Senate floor, the presiding officer was Senator Barry Goldwater, who sent down a note (now lost to history) saying, “Ed, that is the finest speech I think I have ever heard on the floor of the U.S. Senate.” Turning to NEPA, the concept of an” environmental impact statement” developed through a personal compromise Muskie struck with Senator Jackson.

Afterwards I asked Billings, “If Ed Muskie and you were in the Senate now, what would you be doing?” He said, “If we were the majority party, holding a lot of oversight hearings to bring in all the scientists and evidence; if the minority party, writing speeches.”

And that is how the Past (or Days Passed) in Environmental Law still have major force in today’s many controversies. Oh, by the way: The Moody Blues recently released a new box set, “Timeless Flight”, and are still touring. Long live rock and environmental laws!

Gradient of Connectivity: Coming to a 404 Process Near You!

Posted on November 3, 2014 by Rick Glick

The Science Advisory Board has at last released its peer review of EPA’s draft report on Connectivity of Streams and Wetlands to Downstream Waters: A Review and Synthesis, the technical support for the proposed rule on definition of “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act.  The SAB paper is generally supportive of EPA’s analysis.

The proposed rule has generated a great deal of controversy, causing EPA and the Corps to extend the comment period twice (November 14 is the current deadline).  Part of the controversy relates to EPA’s analysis of the technical literature supporting the proposed rule, particularly the effect of tributaries, intermittent and ephemeral streams on navigable waters.  A detailed explanation of the proposed rule, case law leading up to it, and prior agency guidance can be found here.

The SAB paper confirms EPA’s science, but recommends more nuance in some instances.  For example, the paper agrees that tributaries, intermittent and ephemeral streams can have a significant effect on the physical, biological and chemical integrity of receiving waters, but notes that the question is not simply whether there is a connection between upstream sources and navigable waters.  The SAB chides EPA for taking a “binary” view of connectivity—either  a water body is connected to a navigable water or it is not.  Rather, the paper urges EPA to acknowledge there is a “gradient of connectivity.” 

That there is a gradient of connectivity seems obvious, even from a lay standpoint; everything is connected at some level.  But that observation by itself is not terribly helpful, as EPA and the Corps have a regulatory function that is binary in nature—either there is Clean Water Act jurisdiction or there is not.  What would be helpful is guidance on where on the gradient government intervention matters; that is, how the agencies can recognize a truly “significant nexus” as prescribed by Justice Kennedy in Rapanos.

The SAB also makes recommendations to improve the clarity of the EPA report and  make more definitive statements.  For example, the SAB states that the literature supports a firmer statement on downstream functions of “unidirectional,” non-floodplain wetlands.  The SAB also recommended that EPA expand the discussion of approaches to quantifying connectivity, which would increase the utility of the document for regulators.

The SAB paper certainly is a necessary element of the scientific support for EPA’s and the Corps’ proposed rule for determining jurisdiction.  But it is unfortunate that the agencies reached their policy choices in the proposed rule without first having the benefit of the SAB’s input.  That opens the door to criticism that the SAB paper is just window dressing.

Whether that reversed sequence matters in the long term remains to be seen.  Even if EPA and the Corps had waited until the SAB completed its peer review, the rule would probably have come out roughly the same and attracted as much comment.

40 Years Ago In History

Posted on October 3, 2014 by Andrea Field

The Blog Calendar Gods directed me to post something on September 16, 2014, which just happens to be the 40th anniversary of the date that I first started to practice law.  Not wanting that coincidence to go to waste, I decided to look back 40 years, to a time when the practice of environmental law was far less complex – or, at least, the things that EPA then published in the Federal Register were a lot shorter. 

On September 16, 1974, EPA’s rules and notices took up less than four pages in the Federal Register and consisted of a notice of receipt of applications for pesticide registration under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA); a correction to one line of a previously-published notice of proposed rulemaking under the Clean Water Act; and the approval of a compliance schedule under the State of Kansas’ state implementation plan.   The entire Federal Register on that date was only 104 pages long.   

Fast forward 40 years.  EPA’s fairly typical Federal Register postings on September 16, 2014, include – as was the case 40 years ago – rulemaking proposals and notices under the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and FIFRA; however, the September 16, 2014 proposals and notices from EPA take up more than 125 pages of the Federal Register, and a typical edition of the Federal Register these days is well over 300 pages long.  I could complain that EPA did not celebrate my anniversary with the publication of a splashy huge new rule in the Federal Register – but I think many of my clients would consider that to be a good thing.       

Perhaps the most significant change over the past 40 years, though, is to the overall length and complexity of the rules that are now appear in volume 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations.  (There is that number “40” again.)  In 1974, 40 C.F.R. – the volume of the code containing most of EPA’s regulations – was about 2000 pages long.  In the decades following that time, 40 C.F.R. has steadily increased in size (and complexity).  In 1984, it was approximately 5,800 pages long; by 1993, it topped 11,000 pages; and in 2012, there were over 25,000 pages of regulations in 40 C.F.R.          

For those of you wondering what else was going on 40 years ago (outside of the practice of environmental law), let me share the following tidbits from September 16, 1974.  The big news that day was President Ford’s announcement of his “Program for the Return of Vietnam Era Draft Evaders and Military Deserters.”  In addition, on that day, BART began operations in the Bay area, Bob Dylan recorded Blood on the Tracks, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police swore-in their first female recruits, and Joe Namath was on the cover of Sports Illustrated (he was shown rehabbing his battered knees, hoping to play one more season in his $250,000-per-year contract with the New York Jets).  Also, if I had stopped cutting my hair 40 years ago today, my golden locks would be more than six yards longer than they are today.

I will be thinking about all of this as I lift my glass this evening and toast all of you and begin year 41.

Do Air Emissions Constitute Disposal of Solid Waste? The 9th Circuit's Answer is "No".

Posted on August 27, 2014 by Karen Crawford

On August 20, 2014 the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Center For Community Action and Environmental Justice; East Yard Communities For Environmental Justice; Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. v. BNSF Railway Company; Union Pacific Railroad Company, No. 12-56086, D.C. No. 2:11-cv-08608-SJO-SS, determining that emissions of diesel particulate matter does not constitute "disposal" of solid waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).  As a result, plaintiffs could not state a plausible claim for relief under RCRA’s Citizens’ Suit provision, 42 U.S.C. §6972(a)(1)(B). 

A number of environmental organizations had sought to enjoin the emission from defendants' rail yards of particulate matter found in diesel exhaust from locomotive, truck, and other heavy-duty vehicle engines operated on or near 16 rail yards in California.  Plaintiffs cited studies by both EPA and the state agency, which identified diesel particulate matter as a toxic air contaminant with the potential or likelihood "to cause cancer and other adverse health problems, including respiratory illnesses and increased risk of heart disease."  Plaintiffs contended that, while the particulate emissions were initially emitted into the air, they ultimately were deposited on land and water.  They argued that people inhale the exhaust while it is airborne and after deposition (because the particulates are "re-entrained" into the air by wind, air currents, and passing vehicles).  Defendants moved to dismiss arguing that RCRA only applies to air emissions from burning fuel which itself consists of or contains "solid" or hazardous" waste, i.e. a "discarded material."  Otherwise, emissions fall within the scope of the Clean Air Act, which, they argued, was inapplicable. 

The district court concluded that (1) any gap that might exist between the two regulatory schemes as they apply (or don't apply) to mobile sources of air pollution "was created through a series of reasoned and calculated decisions by Congress and EPA," and, independently, (2) plaintiffs failed to state a claim under RCRA because, even if RCRA does apply, diesel exhaust is not a "solid or hazardous waste." 

In affirming, the appeals court cited (and distinguished) prior case law, but for the most part relied on the plain language of the statutes and pertinent legislative history of Congressional actions (or intentional inaction) related to regulation of mobile sources of diesel exhausts and rail yards.  Relying on the principle of expressio unius est exclusio alterius (when Congress expresses meaning through a list, a court may assume that what is not listed is excluded), the court of appeals noted that "emitting" is excluded from the definition in RCRA of "disposal."  Citing §6903(3), the court of appeals added that the specific statutory text further limits the definition of "disposal" to "placement" of solid waste "into or on any land or water" and concluded that emitting the exhaust into the air does not equate to placing the exhaust into or on any land or water. The 9th Circuit concluded that to decide otherwise would be rearranging the wording of the statute which courts cannot do.  Specifically, the court of appeals held, "Reading §6903(3) as Congress has drafted it, ‘disposal’ does not extend to emissions of solid waste directly into the air." 

The 9th Circuit might have stopped there, but it did not  The Court of Appeals further supported its decision by (1) recognizing that the term "emitting" was used elsewhere in the statute and, therefore, was intentionally excluded from the definition of "disposal," and (2) reviewing the legislative history and determining that Congress had opted not to address diesel emissions from locomotives, heavy-duty trucks, and buses at various points in the history of the Clean Air Act amendments adopted in 1970. It also noted that a railroad emissions study required during the planning of a 1977 Clean Air Act overhaul (only one year after enactment of RCRA) omitted rail yards and mobile sources and resulted in a prohibition of federal regulation of "indirect sources" that included corridors attracting mobile sources, like roads or highways, leaving regulation of those sources entirely to the states. The opinion also discussed later amendments to the Clean Air Act, finding that in the 1990 Amendments to the Clean Air Act, Congress finally required EPA to promulgate regulations setting forth standards applicable to emissions from new locomotives and new engines used in locomotives and prohibited states from doing the same, but left the regulation of indirect sources including rail yards, exclusively to the states, noting that, once again, in 1990, RCRA applied to neither. 

The court  of appeals was not persuaded by plaintiffs' argument that the two statutes should be "harmonized" to fill any gaps, or that there was irreconcilable conflict between the two statutes, observing that in actuality no conflict existed because neither statute applied to rail yards' diesel exhausts.  But to put an exclamation point on its holding, the 9th Circuit added: “[H]owever, to the extent that its text is ambiguous, RCRA's statutory and legislative histories resolve that ambiguity.”

The 9th Circuit's straightforward analysis of the plain language of the statutes and the  statutory history of Congressional action in this opinion is a refreshing contrast to recent opinions in which courts have struggled to find justification for EPA's attempts to regulate in areas where Congress has clearly failed to take action. 

Looking ahead to EPA’s next GHG Permit Program: more 2/3rds solutions when Congress goes missing

Posted on July 10, 2014 by Michael R. Barr

Last Monday June 23,  it was the Supreme Court’s turn in the UARG case to decide whether EPA could “tailor” its climate policy to fit the PSD and operating permit programs in the current Clean Air Act.  Both the Court and EPA faced the issue without any precise guidance from the missing branch:  Congress.

As a result, yet another court – the DC Circuit – must next consider the proper remedy in the UARG case and, if past DC Circuit decisions are a sound guide, remand the matter back to EPA to take action consistent with the courts’ decisions.  The DC Circuit will almost certainly not tell EPA what it can do, nor should it tell EPA how to exercise its remaining substantial discretion.  The courts are only telling EPA what it cannot do in certain respects.  Thus, the courts’ guidance to EPA is limited.

EPA will retain considerable discretion when it tries again to regulate GHG emissions from major stationary sources and major stationary source modifications under titles 1 and 5 of the Clean Air Act.  EPA has loads of options, as many commenters pointed out during the prior EPA rulemaking.  The options may fit the current Clean Air Act to varying degrees.  In the words of the Supreme Court in the June 23 UARG decision, though, “Even under Chevron’s deferential framework, agencies must operate ‘within the bounds of reasonable interpretation.’” (J. Scalia for the Court, slip opinion at p. 16)  

EPA may try to avoid options that would be most vulnerable to challenge under the principles expressed by the Court in the UARG opinion.  One Court majority held that EPA lacked authority to “tailor” the Act’s numerical thresholds governing the PSD and operating permit programs.  A different Court majority upheld EPA’s BACT rules for GHGs.  Some commenters will undoubtedly urge EPA to continue its drive towards regulating GHGs under titles 1 and 5 of the current Clean Air Act.  But, EPA should re-solicit the broadest public comment and carefully consider all options, as the Supreme Court requires under the Chevron standard of judicial review.  After all, there will be a national election in 2016 and there will be a new Administration with its own views on the options.  If the current Administration wishes to leave a lasting legacy in this area, it would be well advised to act on the basis of the most solid record and adopt moderate, fully vetted polices that can survive.  As retiring Congressman John Dingell recently said in a farewell speech held by the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., “Compromise is an honorable word."  

Congress is very unlikely to provide any additional guidance in this area any time soon, though.  The nation will miss some basic policy decisions and compromises, such as:

Should the PSD and operating permit programs apply to GHGs?  How?

Which sources should be covered?  When?  With a phase-in?  Tied to what?

In the PSD program, can and should BACT work the same way for GHGs as for criteria pollutants?

In the operating permit program, when should sources have to add GHG provisions (since there aren’t yet any substantive requirements for the operating permits to pick up)?

What substantive requirement should EPA develop and for which sources?  When? E.g., should EPA set GHG emissions standards or other requirements for power plants and other source categories under section 111(d) of the Act, as EPA recently proposed?

What role(s) should state and local agencies and programs play?

In the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, Congress resolved issues like these in the Act itself.  The leading precedent is title 4 – acid rain – where Congress even allocated emissions of SO2 by individual numbered electric power generators in named powerplants in named states.  Both houses and both parties held hands and made this deal under the Capitol dome – a deal which has resulted in a stunning and stable policy success.  The acid rain deal largely avoided the dilemmas that EPA and the courts now face in dealing with stationary source permitting under titles 1 and 5 of the Clean Air Act.  It seems most likely that whatever EPA does next under the current Clean Air Act will be challenged vigorously in court – again and again – until Congress can once again come together under the dome.

A Splash of Cold Water: Supreme Court Trims EPA’s GHG Permit Program

Posted on June 27, 2014 by Robert Wyman

Having unleashed EPA rulemaking of unprecedented scale in Massachusetts v. EPA (holding GHGs are “air pollutants” under the Clean Air Act (CAA) that EPA must regulate upon finding “endangerment”) and having further acknowledged EPA’s GHG authority in AEP v. Connecticut (holding CAA displaces federal nuisance common law), early this week in Utility Air Regulatory Group v. Environmental Protection Agency et al., the Supreme Court started the inevitable process of reining in the Agency’s exercise of its potentially boundless GHG authority under a statute designed for regulation of conventional air pollutants.  Although interpretive gymnastics would be required whatever direction it took, the Court decided in a fractured decision that the CAA’s preconstruction Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) and Title V operating permit programs allow EPA to impose Best Available Control Technology (BACT) for GHGs only when a source has triggered these programs “anyway” due to its conventional criteria pollutant emissions.

The consolidated cases below challenged a full basket of major EPA GHG rulemakings, including EPA’s endangerment finding, motor vehicle regulations (the Tailpipe Rule) and stationary source permitting rules.  But the Court granted certiorari on only one question - whether EPA permissibly determined  that its regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from new motor vehicles under one part of the Act triggered permitting requirements under the Act for stationary sources that emit greenhouse gases under another part of the Act.  The Court rejected EPA’s PSD and Title V Triggering and Tailoring Rules, leaving intact only the ancillary BACT review of a source’s non-de minimis GHG emissions when a source otherwise undergoes PSD review for conventional pollutants.

The PSD program requires a permit to construct or modify a “major emitting facility”—defined as any stationary source with the potential to emit 250 tons per year of “any air pollutant” or 100 tons per year for certain types of sources—in areas where the PSD program applies.  To qualify for a permit, the facility must, among other things, comply with emissions limitations that reflect BACT for “each pollutant subject to regulation under” the CAA.  Title V requires a comprehensive operating permit to operate any “major source”—defined as any stationary source with the potential to emit 100 tons per year of “any air pollutant”—wherever located.

Recognizing that applying these thresholds to GHGs would result in permitting for numerous small sources, such as schools, hospitals and even large homes, EPA promulgated the so-called Tailoring Rule with special thresholds for GHGs that would apply in addition to the statutory thresholds and said that it would revisit whether to continue applying these special thresholds after five years, during which time it would study the feasibility of extending permitting to the small sources per the statutory thresholds.  Under Step 1 of the Tailoring Rule, commencing January 2, 2011 (the effective date for its Tailpipe Rule), it obligated sources already required to obtain permits under the PSD program or Title V (so-called “anyway” sources) to comply with BACT for GHGs if they emitted at least 75,000 tons per year (tpy) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) units.  Then, under Step 2, commencing July 1, 2011, it obligated sources with the potential to emit at least 100,000 tpy of CO2e to obtain permits under the PSD program and Title V for construction and operation, and sources with the potential to emit at least 75,000 tpy of CO2e to obtain permits under the PSD program for modifications.  These higher thresholds were needed on a temporary basis, according to the EPA, because the number of permit applications would otherwise grow by several orders of magnitude, exceeding the agency’s administrative resources and subjecting to the major permit programs sources that Congress clearly did not intend to cover.  EPA’s Tailoring Rule also contemplated a Step 3 where GHG permitting would apply to additional sources as well as a five year study on how to extend the program to remaining sources per the statutory thresholds.

Writing for the Court, Justice Scalia, joined by Justices Roberts, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito, concluded that EPA’s legal interpretation that the PSD and Title V programs were triggered once EPA regulated GHGs under the mobile source program not only is not compelled, but moreover, simply is not reasonable.  He reasoned that the “air pollutants encompassed by the Act-wide definition as interpreted in Massachusetts” are not the same “air pollutants referred to in the permit-requiring provisions” at issue.  This is so because EPA has routinely given “air pollutant” in the permit-requiring provisions a narrower, context-driven meaning.  The same five justices also concluded that EPA is not permitted to augment with additional thresholds – even temporarily, as EPA claimed – the 100 tpy and 250 tpy statutorily-defined thresholds for triggering the PSD program and Title V permitting requirements.  He writes that the need for such an adjustment simply demonstrates that the PSD program and Title V were never intended to be expanded in this way, and adds that the EPA does not have the power to “rewrit[e] unambiguous statutory terms” such as the statutorily-defined numerical thresholds for applying the PSD program and Title V.

Justice Scalia, joined in this part by Justices Roberts, Kennedy, Ginsberg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, then determined that the EPA reasonably interpreted the CAA to require that those new and modified sources already subject to PSD permitting due to their potential to emit conventional criteria pollutants also must comply with BACT for GHGs.  In this context, he emphasizes that the statutory language  – once permitting already has been triggered – requiring BACT “for each pollutant subject to regulation under this chapter” contextually leaves less room for interpretations that could limit BACT to a smaller set of pollutants, in contrast to the triggering “any air pollutant” language, which must be read contextually in a more limited manner.  Additionally, he argues that applying BACT to greenhouse gases “is not so disastrously unworkable, and need not result in such a dramatic expansion of agency authority, as to convince us that EPA’s interpretation is unreasonable.”

Justice Breyer concurred in part and dissented in part, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan.  He joins the Court’s opinion as to the application of BACT to greenhouse gases, but asserts that the EPA is also permitted to interpret the CAA so as to trigger permitting requirements for stationary sources that emit an adjusted threshold level of greenhouse gases.  Justice Alito concurred in part and dissented in part, joined by Justice Thomas.  He argues that neither the EPA’s interpretation of provisions triggering permitting requirements nor its interpretation regarding BACT is permissible.

The Court’s decision to require independent PSD and BACT applicability before subjecting sources to BACT for GHG emissions squares fully with significant industry input to EPA early in its discussion of stationary source permitting.  Our National Climate Coalition, for example, urged EPA to embrace such an interpretation in our 2009 Tailoring Rule comments and 2010 PSD White Paper.

Although this decision does not directly affect EPA’s authority to regulate stationary source GHG emissions by establishing New (or Existing) Source Performance Standards under section 111 of the Act, it portends significant challenges for the agency’s recent §111(d) proposal.  Most notable are the several statements in the 5-4 portion of Justice Scalia’s opinion in which he cautions the agency not to “rewrite clear statutory terms to suit its own sense of how the statute should operate.”  In articulating the Court’s test for whether an agency interpretation of ambiguous terms is reasonable, he stresses that an interpretation is less likely be viewed as reasonable to the extent it:

brings about an enormous and transformative expansion in EPA’s regulatory authority without clear congressional authorization.  When an agency claims to discover in a long-extant statute an unheralded power to regulate a ‘significant portion of the American economy,’ [cite omitted], we typically greet its announcement with a measure of skepticism.  We expect Congress to speak clearly if it wishes to assign to an agency decisions of vast ‘economic and political significance.’

This portion of the Court’s ruling will likely figure prominently in the Court’s inevitable review of the agency’s §111(d) proposal.  It thus may behoove EPA to consider in its final rulemaking approaches that bring the existing source program somewhat closer to its traditional rulemakings under that section.

Pulling the Plug on Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Posted on June 12, 2014 by Robert Wyman

Buoyed by favorable recent Supreme Court and DC Circuit decisions recognizing EPA’s broad discretion under the Clean Air Act, on Monday, June 2, EPA scaled new heights of legal adventurism by proposing the Clean Power Plan, a greenhouse gas reduction program for the power sector that would compel states to implement supply- and demand-side energy strategies.  EPA projects that its proposal would achieve approximately a 30% reduction from 2005 levels by 2030.

EPA’s action is under section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, a little-utilized section that authorizes EPA to set emission guidelines for states to regulate listed source categories whose emissions are not regulated under either the Act’s criteria pollutant program under section 108 or the hazardous air pollutant program of section 112.  The College recently prepared an excellent overview of section 111 authority for the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS).

Certain aspects of EPA’s proposal are worth noting.  First, in stark contrast to prior stationary source rules, EPA seeks to harness the entire energy system, not just efforts at individual sources.  The bulk of the proposed emission reductions will come not from the minor expected heat rate improvements at individual electric generating units (EGUs)(EPA’s first “building block”), but from directing states to increase generation at natural gas plants and renewables while reducing electricity demand.  Three of EPA’s four “building blocks”  thus address emission reductions that are outside the control of EGUs, the listed source category.  Consistent with this approach, EPA proposes a portfolio enforcement approach by which states would be authorized to oblige entities other than the affected source for the reductions in building blocks two through four.  The proposal calls for an overall state energy plan, not just for implementing emission reduction opportunities available to individual sources.

Second, the proposal does not establish common performance standards, but sets highly-variable standards for each state based on EPA’s assessment of the state’s individual capacity to reduce emissions under each of the four building blocks.  EPA clearly listened to state pre-proposal input regarding material differences in each state’s EGU portfolio, its capacity to harness wind and solar generating technologies and other state differences.

Although the proposal’s projected benefits reflect an estimated 30% emission reduction from 2005 levels, EPA actually uses 2012 as the baseline for measuring a state’s starting carbon intensity.  Because EPA sets each state’s interim and future carbon intensity targets based on the state’s capacity for reducing, shifting or avoiding EGU emissions, it is not surprising that the proposal does not provide any state with early action credit in the traditional sense.  Some states are further along on their individual progress lines, but as currently designed the proposal does not allow any state to monetize its early reductions nor to avoid future progress based on its prior actions.  This means that some states will be expected to do more than others for the foreseeable future.  And, unless a true early action mechanism is included in EPA’s final rule, some states, such as California, may continue to incur net energy costs higher than their neighbors.

Several commenters have noted the material legal risk that EPA takes with this proposal.  Among the many expected challenges will be that EPA cannot regulate EGUs under section 111(d) because the House version of that section precludes such regulation if the source category already has been listed under section 112.  The proposal also could be challenged for including in the “best system of emission reduction” (BSER) emission reductions outside the control of the source and for obliging the state and entities other than EGUs to achieve such reductions.  EPA argues in its proposal that it can require states to consider any measure that has the effect of reducing EGU emissions (i.e., an “effects” or “ends” test), but some will argue that section 111 only allows EPA to require those emission reduction options (i.e., “means”) available to the EGU itself.

Should EPA fail to finalize one or both of its section 111(b) new and modified/reconstructed unit proposals, then it may be challenged for a failure to finalize the prerequisite 111(b) rule.  Other challenges could relate to an alleged failure properly to subcategorize facilities and for stepping beyond its emission reduction role to, in essence, regulate a state’s energy policy.

EPA has left some important design issues unresolved.  EPA strongly encourages interstate cooperation, including the use of emissions trading, but it leaves the actual shape of such linkages undefined.  Similarly unresolved is the question of how states can interact if they act alone.  Given the regional nature of power markets and the fact that emission reductions occurring in one state often result from investment (on either the supply or demand side) in another, states and companies will need to know the ground rules for adjudicating potentially-conflicting claims for state plan credit and company compliance credit.  EPA seeks comment on these and other critical issues.

For those interested, a more substantive analysis of the proposal can be found here.

EPA Meets Regional Uniformity Requirement – the Hard Way

Posted on June 3, 2014 by Robert Wyman

On Friday, in a case argued by my colleague, Greg Garre and briefed by Leslie Ritts, the D.C. Circuit decided a closely watched case construing the EPA’s “regional uniformity” requirement under the Clean Air Act (CAA.)  The court declared the agency’s directive to regional offices outside the Sixth Circuit to ignore a 2012 Sixth Circuit decision interpreting the CAA’s “single source” requirements as inconsistent with EPA’s uniformity requirement. The decision brings to light an important component of the CAA’s nationwide scheme.

Under the CAA, any “major source” of pollution is subject to certain heightened requirements.  EPA regulations provide that multiple pollutant-emitting activities will be considered together for purposes of the “major source” analysis if they are—among other things—“adjacent.”  But EPA has, in recent years at least, given “adjacent” an expansive and atextual meaning, concluding that even facilities separated by considerable physical distance should be deemed “adjacent” as long as they are “functionally interrelated.” 

In 2012, the Sixth Circuit in Summit Petroleum Corp. v. EPA held that EPA’s interpretation was “unreasonable and contrary to the plain meaning of the term ‘adjacent.’”  The EPA opted not to seek Supreme Court review of the Sixth Circuit’s ruling.  A few months after the Summit decision, however, EPA circulated a directive to the Regional Air Directors informing them that the agency would abide by the Sixth Circuit’s decision within the Sixth Circuit, but that “[o]utside the [Sixth] Circuit, at this time, the EPA does not intend to change its longstanding practice of considering interrelatedness in the EPA permitting actions.”

The National Environmental Development Association’s Clean Air Project (NEDA/CAP), an industry group, filed a petition for review in the D.C. Circuit, challenging the EPA’s “Summit Directive” as contrary to the statute and EPA’s own regulations.  NEDA/CAP explained that EPA’s Directive would impermissibly place NEDA/CAP members operating outside of the Sixth Circuit at a competitive disadvantage, subject to a more onerous permitting regime than their peers operating within the Sixth Circuit’s jurisdiction.  That disparity between regions, NEDA/CAP explained, was inconsistent with the CAA’s requirement that EPA assure “uniformity in the criteria, procedures, and policies applied by the various regions,” 42 U. S. C. § 7601(a)(2), as well as EPA regulations that similarly require inter-regional uniformity.

On Friday, the D.C. Circuit issued a decision agreeing with NEDA/CAP in National Environmental Development Association’s Clean Air Project v. EPA. Rejecting EPA arguments that the policy could only be challenged in the context of a discrete stationary source permit application, the Court held that NEDA/CAP’s blanket challenge to the EPA’s creation of two different permitting regimes across the country could be challenged today because of the competitive disadvantages it created for companies operating in different parts of the country.  

On the merits, the Court concluded that maintaining a standard in the Sixth Circuit different from the one applied elsewhere in the country was inconsistent with the agency’s regulatory commitment to national uniformity.  The Court recognized that an agency is ordinarily free, under the doctrine of “intercircuit nonacquiescence,” to refuse to follow a circuit court’s holding outside that court’s jurisdiction.  Here, however, the Court held that EPA’s own regulations required it to “respond to the Summit Petroleum decision in a manner that eliminated regional inconsistency, not preserved it.”  Finding that the agency’s “current regulations preclude EPA’s inter-circuit nonacquiescence in this instance,” the Court vacated the directive.

The decision is noteworthy in a number of respects.  Not only does the decision roundly reject EPA’s threshold objections to NEDA/CAP’s petition (standing, finality, and ripeness), but it appears to represent the first time a court has applied EPA’s uniformity regulations to invalidate a rule.  The decision therefore puts a light on an important component of the CAA’s nationwide enforcement scheme—the “regional uniformity” requirement.    

Beware the Specter of Debarment

Posted on May 8, 2014 by Tom Sansonetti

Debarment is the process whereby the federal government can permanently prevent a company from doing business with the federal government or suspend a company from doing business with the federal government for a period of years.  The debarment process has been available for decades to the United States to be used against companies or persons whom the government believes are untrustworthy. For instance, removal from EPA’s list of violating facilities requires agency evaluation of corporate attitude. But the Obama Administration has broadened the scope of the process to potentially ensnare many an unsuspecting entity.

The debarment process as it currently exists has resulted in the following scenarios:

A. An oil company in the Rocky Mountain region settled a regulatory violation with the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management and as part of the agreement paid a substantial seven figure fine and adopted new procedures designed to prevent a reoccurrence of the violation and a two-year period of probation.  Imagine the surprise of the company’s managers and in-house lawyers when eighteen months after the settlement was executed, they received a Notice of Debarment for a three-year period preventing the use of their federal leases requiring new permits.

B. A wind farm owner that was convicted for killing bald eagles discovered that the company could not sell future electricity production to a federal facility.

C. An oil and gas company that pleaded guilty to a Clean Water Act spill faced debarment from being able to bid on federal oil and gas leases for five years.

Companies or persons found to be in violation of civil or criminal statutes or departmental regulations are subject to debarment.  While in egregious cases debarments can be perpetual, most debarments are for a period of three to nine years.  Debarments do not affect a company’s current government contracts, but do affect renewals of those contracts or the need for new permits on federal lands.  The debarments are company-wide.  Consequently, the above-mentioned wind farm owner also could not sell its electricity produced from its coal fired power plants to federal facilities.

Debarment proceedings are administered by the various Offices of Debarment, located within each cabinet department, with the closest responsibility for enforcing the law that was violated.  Thus, the Department of the Interior’s Office of Debarment (staffed by the Inspector General’s personnel) handles violations of fish and wildlife, public lands and Indian law.  Environmental Protection Agency lawyers in the grants and debarment program handle debarment proceedings authorized by Section 508 of the Clean Water Act or Section 306 of the Clean Air Act.

Upon the entry of a federal court judgment or consent decree a representative of the Department of Justice, often an Assistant United States Attorney, forwards the document to the appropriate cabinet department’s Office of Debarment.  The government deems debarment proceedings to be separate from the underlying litigation.  Agreements to avoid debarment may not be a condition of any plea bargain or consent decree.  Adverse outcomes after executive branch debarment hearings may be appealed to a federal district court under deferential Administrative Procedures Act standards. 

Homer's Odyssey Continues Without Cooperative Federalism

Posted on April 30, 2014 by Paul Seals

On April 29, 2014, Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the Supreme Court in EPA v. EME Homer City Generation, L.P., 572 U.S._(2014) reversing the DC Circuit’s decision regarding the Transport Rule, also known as the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR), a rulemaking designed to address the significant contribution of upwind States to nonattainment of National Ambient Air Quality Standards in downwind States under the Good Neighbor Provision of the Clean Air Act (CAA).   In addition to upholding EPA’s cost-effective allocation of air pollutant emission reductions among upwind States as a permissible interpretation of the Good Neighbor Provision, the majority held that the CAA does not compel EPA to provide States with an opportunity to file a SIP after EPA has quantified the State’s interstate pollution obligations.  This opinion is a severe blow to cooperative federalism.

In the majority opinion, cooperative federalism was relegated to a single footnote, which was surprising given the issues for which certiorari was granted.  The second issue addressed in the briefs and argument – whether states are excused from adopting state implementation plans prohibiting emissions that “contribute significantly” to air pollution problems in other states until after the EPA has adopted a rule quantifying each state’s inter-state pollution obligations – provided the Supreme Court with an opportunity to address the relative health of cooperative federalism and whether the federalism bar should be raised or lowered in the context of the CAA. 

Justice Ginsburg’s footnote addressed Justice Scalia’s dissenting opinion in which he criticized the majority for “making hash of the Clean Air Act, transforming it from a program based on cooperative federalism to one of centralized federal control.”  EPA’s promulgation of federal implementation plans without providing the States with a meaningful opportunity to perform the emissions reductions through state implementation plans is inconsistent with the core principle and regulatory strategy of cooperative federalism embedded in the CAA – air pollution control at its source is the primary responsibility of States and local governments.   

Homer’s Odyssey continues.  For the next chapter, his ship will not sail under the fair winds of cooperative federalism.

D.C. Circuit Affirms EPA’s Utility Air Toxics Rule: An “Appropriate” Rule Need Not Be Justified By Cost-Benefit Analysis

Posted on April 17, 2014 by Seth Jaffe
On April 15th, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed EPA’s rule setting limits for emissions of mercury and other air toxics from fossil-fuel-fired electric steam generating units.  The focus of the decision – and the issue on which Judge Kavanaugh dissented – was whether EPA was required to consider the costs that would be imposed by the rule.  EPA said no and the majority agreed.

Section 112(n) of the Clean Air Act required EPA to perform a study of the health hazards related to hazardous emissions from EGUs prior to regulating them.  How was EPA to utilize the results of the study?

"The Administrator shall regulate [EGUs] under this section, if the Administrator finds such regulation is appropriate and necessary after considering the results of the study required by this subparagraph."

The industry petitioners and Judge Kavanaugh took the position that Congress’s use of the word “appropriate” evidenced an intent to require EPA to consider costs.  To Judge Kavanaugh, “that’s just common sense and sound government practice.”  However, persuasive Judge Kavanaugh may be as a matter of policy, the majority was not persuaded that the law requires a consideration of cost.

As the majority noted, nothing in section 112(n) requires that EPA consider cost.  Indeed, the word “cost” is not mentioned in section 112(n).  Moreover, Congress required EPA to make the “appropriate and necessary” determination based on a study of health impacts, not a study of costs.  Finally, as EPA and the majority noted, the Supreme Court, in Whitman v. American Trucking Ass’ns, cautioned against finding authority – let alone a mandate – to consider costs in ambiguous provisions of the CAA, given that there are sections of the Act which do address costs.

I’m with Judge Kavanaugh as a matter of policy (though it’s worth noting that EPA in fact did a cost-benefit analysis and found that the benefits of the rule substantially outweigh its costs).  On the law, however, the dissent seems pretty much a case of ipse dixit.  When the rule was promulgated, I said that I would be “stunned” if the rule was not upheld on judicial review. Notwithstanding the dissent, I’d be equally stunned if the Supreme Court flips this decision.  I don’t think that there’s anything here warranting Supreme Court review.

ACOEL Members Assist ECOS On Clean Air Act Issues

Posted on April 15, 2014 by Theodore Garrett

This week, the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS)  publicly announced a memorandum prepared by ACOEL members concerning important issues arising under the Clean Air Act.  In May 2013 ACOEL entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with ECOS to facilitate a relationship pursuant to which members of ACOEL will provide assistance on issues of interest to ECOS. 

In accord with the President’s June 2013 Climate Action Plan, EPA announced plans to use existing Clean Air Act Section 111 authority to develop greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) standards for new and existing sources.  Thereafter, ECOS contacted ACOEL and requested an extensive and neutral review of the history and background of section 111(d) of the Act.  A diverse group of ACOEL members from academia, private law firms, and public interest groups volunteered and produced the attached comprehensive memorandum, which was well received by ECOS.  This week, ECOS made the memorandum publicly available. 

In announcing the memorandum, Dick Pedersen, the President of ECOS and Director of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, thanked the members of ACOEL for their significant time and effort in preparing the memorandum, and added that ECOS looks forward to working with ACOEL in the future.  ACOEL hopes that this memorandum will serve as a valuable resource in connection with EPA’s anticipated rulemaking efforts in this area.

ACOEL: Memorandum for ECOS Concerning Clean Air Act 111(d) Issues pdf

The Trains Don’t Wait... GHG Permits Leaving the Station

Posted on March 24, 2014 by Catherine R. McCabe

While the world waits for the Supreme Court to decide whether EPA can regulate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from stationary sources under the Clean Air Act, EPA and state permitting authorities have moved ahead to issue GHG permits. Some of those permits are encountering legal challenges. The Sierra Club and citizen activists are challenging permits issued by EPA Regions as insufficiently stringent, and urging EPA to use its Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) permitting authority to require greater use of solar energy and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) at new facilities.

So far, EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board has rejected two citizen challenges to GHG PSD permits issued by EPA Regions. On March 14, 2014, the Board denied the Sierra Club’s petition for review of a GHG permit issued by Region 6 for a new natural gas-fired power plant in Harlingen, Texas. In re La Paloma Energy Center, LLC. (Those of you who follow events in Texas will recall that EPA is currently running the GHG permitting program in that state, but has proposed to approve the state’s application to assume responsibility for that program.) The Board rejected Sierra Club’s arguments that the permit’s GHG emission limits were not stringent enough to meet BACT standards and that Region 6 should have required La Paloma to consider adding a solar energy component to its power plant. The Board cautioned, however, that there is no “automatic BACT off-ramp” for solar energy alternatives, and emphasized that permitting authorities must consider suggestions for adding solar energy components at new facilities on a case-specific basis.

In 2012 the Board rejected similar arguments by citizen activists who urged Region 9 to use its PSD permitting authority to require a new hybrid (gas-solar) power plant in California to reduce GHG emissions by increasing its planned solar generation capacity. In re City of Palmdale. The proposed plant was to be fueled primarily by natural gas, with a modest (10%) solar power component to satisfy California renewable energy requirements. The decisions in both City of Palmdale and La Paloma relied heavily on the Regions’ findings that there was insufficient space at the project sites to accommodate the solar power generation capacity that the petitioners were advocating. 

The Palmdale decision also upheld Region 9’s rejection of CCS as a BACT requirement for that facility based on cost considerations. The estimated annual cost of CCS would have been twice the project cost (annualized over 20 years) in that case. Sierra Club has renewed the debate over the affordability of CCS in a new PSD permit appeal that is currently pending before the Board. In re ExxonMobil Chemical Company Baytown Olefins Plant. Region 6 rejected the CCS option in this case based on a finding that the cost would be disproportionately high. Stay tuned for a Board decision in the next few months . . . 

*Any views expressed herein are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or the United States.

What Would Leon Billings Think?

Posted on March 7, 2014 by Richard Lazarus

Almost as soon as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Scalia joined the bench in the fall of 1986, he made clear his disdain for arguments that the meaning of statutory text could be gleaned from its legislative history. And advocates before the Court who made the mistake of equating “congressional intent” with a statement made by an individual member of Congress during a hearing or a colloquy on a chamber floor could expect a sharp rebuke from the Justice.

The debate at the Court about the proper role of legislative history in statutory construction was not fully joined, however, until 1994 when Justice Stephen Breyer joined the bench. From the outset, Breyer, a former Senate staffer, made equally plain his view that legislative history was both fair game and could be highly relevant.

Indeed, Scalia’s and Breyer’s contrasting views regarding textualism in both statutory and constitutional interpretation became so celebrated that they literally took their debate on the road. To be sure, theirs was a far cry from the Lincoln-Douglas Debates on slavery 150 years earlier, but for legal scholars and Supreme Court observers, it was High Court entertainment.

During the oral arguments last month before the Supreme Court in Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA, Justice Breyer managed to take the debate to yet a new level. The issue before the Justices concerned the lawfulness of EPA’s regulations applying the Clean Air Act’s Prevention of Significant Deterioration Program to the emissions of greenhouse gases from new and modified stationary sources. As the Justices struggled to decipher the meaning of statutory terms and phrases that befuddle even seasoned environmental lawyers, Justice Breyer made a surprising reference. He did not merely ask what Senator Edmund Muskie, the bill’s chief sponsor, might have been intending in drafting the language at dispute before the Court. He asked what “Mr. Billings, I think, is the staff person” would have intended if faced with the policy issue that EPA now faced in trying to apply the language he drafted to greenhouse gases.

The Supreme Court courtroom was filled to capacity for the argument. Yet, I can probably safely say that fewer than ten, and likely fewer than five people in the room had any idea to whom the Justice was referring. And those few most certainly did not include any of the Justice’s colleagues on the bench or any of the advocates before him.

But for a few of us, who thrive on environmental law’s history, it was a moment of glory. The Justice was referring, of course, to Leon Billings who was Senator Ed Muskie’s chief staffer for the drafting of almost all of the nation’s path-breaking environmental laws during the 1970s, including, as the Justice correctly surmised, the Clean Air Act of 1970. The statutes were revolutionary in their reach, as they sought no less than to redefine the relationship of human activities to the nation’s environment.

Not relying merely on the soaring rhetoric of a law like the National Environmental Policy Act, these new pollution control laws got into the nitty-gritty of lawmaking. They addressed the extent to which costs, benefits, risk assessment, scientific uncertainty, and technological availability should all be relevant in determining the pollution control standards. They brokered compromises across partisan divides and remained nonetheless exceedingly ambitious and demanding in their reach.

The nation, more than four decades later, has reason to be grateful for the work of former congressional staffers like Leon Billings. Their impressive work lies in sharp contrast to that of Congresses over the past twenty plus years, which have passed no comparably significant environmental laws and done little more than deepen partisan divides even further.  For that reason, the Supreme Court shout-out to “Mr. Billings” was a great moment at the Court. And the Justice’s question an apt one too.

Snatching Air Permitting Certainty from the Jaws of Tribal NSR Rule Vacatur for Non-Reservation Lands

Posted on February 19, 2014 by John Jacus

The recent decision of the D.C. Circuit in Oklahoma DEQ v. EPA vacated the 2011 Tribal NSR Rules with respect to non-reservation lands for which EPA has not made a prior determination of tribal jurisdiction. By its broad terms, the opinion’s reach extends well beyond lands solely within Oklahoma (“We…vacate the Indian Country NSR Rule with respect to non-reservation Indian country.”). States with EPA-approved implementation plans may once again permit facilities within their borders located on such non-reservation lands, in the wake of this decision. Though it may be decried by EPA and Native American tribes as effecting a partial loss of federal jurisdiction and/or tribal sovereignty, it should be praised by all who value legal and regulatory certainty, especially including those who wish to obtain air permits for their commercial activities within Indian Country.

EPA promulgated the Tribal NSR Rules to fill a regulatory gap created by the asserted general lack of state authority to regulate air quality within Indian Country. It did so by exercising its authority under Clean Air Act § 7601(d)(4) to administer a federal program over Indian Country in the stead of the tribes. This gap persisted for twenty years, until the Tribal NSR Rules were finalized as a Federal Implementation Plan (FIP) for Indian Country lands nationwide that lacked such a plan.

This twenty-year regulatory gap led to the inability to obtain air permits in Indian Country for certain activities, or the conduct of such activities without air permits at all: neither a good result. It also led to enforcement against even well-controlled activities and facilities in Indian Country because without a legally and practically enforceable limit on their emissions, such as in a valid permit, EPA and tribes were required to assume emissions were as high as their potential to emit without controls, often triggering the most serious, alleged violations. This unhappy state of affairs persisted from the passage of the 1990 CAA amendments until 2011, interrupted only in 2006 by the faint promise of proposed rules that would take another five years to be finalized.

When is a Regulatory Gap not a Gap?

EPA’s overbroad assertion of jurisdiction under the Tribal NSR Rules is what ultimately led to the vacatur of the rules for non-reservation lands. The case turned on the D.C. Circuit’s prior holding in Michigan v. EPA, which involved review of the Federal Operating Permits program for Indian Country. In that rule, EPA had established a federal CAA program throughout Indian Country, but declared it would “treat areas for which EPA believes Indian Country status is in question as Indian Country.” 64 Fed. Reg. at 8262. The court in Michigan sided with the petitioners and confirmed § 7601(d)(4) permits the EPA to act only in the shoes of a tribe, and EPA could not regulate in Indian Country where a tribe could not, i.e., on non-reservation lands where there had been no demonstration of tribal jurisdiction. The Oklahoma DEQ decision was controlled by this prior interpretation of EPA’s authority under § 7601(d)(4), and confirmed that a state “has regulatory jurisdiction within its geographic boundaries except where a tribe has a reservation or has demonstrated its jurisdiction.”

The good news is that part of the gap EPA sought to fill was not a gap at all: states with valid SIPs were authorized all along to issue permits for activities on non-reservation lands for which tribal jurisdiction has not been demonstrated.  The decision reaffirms such authority of states for such non-reservation lands, so air permitting with respect to them may proceed, albeit after a period of transition (EPA had loudly proclaimed in the Tribal NSR Rules that states don’t have jurisdiction anywhere in Indian Country).

While this result is not optimal from a tribal perspective, and appears to complicate the future ability of tribes to assume the broadest possible authority to regulate air quality, it is not all bad. For example, in Oklahoma, where no reservation lands remain due to the assimilationist policies of the last century, and where title to allotment lands is a legal quagmire preventing anyone from easily determining if a project is on non-reservation lands within Indian Country, the state may once again issue permits to protect air quality. I suggest it is also not a bad thing in other states, since the ability to obtain valid state air permits for activities on non-reservation lands within Indian Country will not only protect air quality there, but will create air permitting certainty, thereby removing some of the regulatory barriers to economic development on non-reservation lands.

Inverting the Inversions – Utah and the PM2.5 NAAQS

Posted on February 18, 2014 by James Holtkamp

The valleys and mountains of the Great Basin hold cold air in when a high pressure parks itself overhead, with the result that the valleys with significant populations, primarily the 100+ mile Wasatch Front, are subject to a wintertime PM2.5 grunge that builds up until the next storm front moves in to clear it out.

Although Salt Lake City and other parts of the state are in compliance with the annual PM2.5 NAAQS, exceedances of the 24-hour NAAQS have been recorded during inversion periods since 2006, when EPA lowered that standard from 65 μg/m3 to 35 μg/m3. As a result, Utah is going through an arduous PM2.5 state implementation plan (SIP) revision process to address the PM2.5 nonattainment.

Because we can’t change the topography around here or install fans large enough to blow air out of the valleys, the state must seek reductions in emissions that contribute to the wintertime PM2.5 exceedances. Nearly three-fifths of those emissions are from car and truck emissions. About thirty percent of the contributing emissions are from area sources and wood-burning fireplaces and stoves. And the rest of the emissions –only about a tenth of the PM2.5 precursor and direct emissions – are contributed by large industrial sources in the airshed.

The proposed SIP seeks some reductions from the large industrial sources, which must be retrofit not with RACT but with the equivalent of BACT, notwithstanding hundreds of millions of dollars of pollution control improvements already installed over the last decade. The rest of the PM2.5 emissions to be reduced during inversions must come primarily from mobile source and area emissions.  

The modeling underlying the SIP shows that attainment will barely be reached by the 2019 attainment date. But, with the D.C. Circuit throwing out the PM2.5 implementation rule a year ago and requiring EPA to promulgate a new one under more restrictive provisions of the CAA and the predictable citizen’s suits, who knows if attainment can be achieved short of literally turning out the lights and leaving town.

The Utah Legislature is in session and legislators are falling over each other trying to show that they care about cleaner air. However, there is not much state legislators can do, given that the emissions and fuel standards for mobile sources are set by the federal government (with states having the option of adopting California standards under certain circumstances). So, the state is squeezed between the Wasatch Mountains on the one side and the Clean Air Act on the other. It might be easier to cart off the mountains than to bring the Clean Air Act requirements into alignment with the real world.

176A Petition - The Latest Development In The Debate Over The Interstate Transport Of Air Pollutants

Posted on December 30, 2013 by David Flannery

On the eve of the December 10, 2013 oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court in the litigation involving the Cross State Air Pollution Rule, nine Northeast states – Connecticut Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont (Petitioners) – filed with EPA a petition under Section 176A of the Clean Air Act.   Section 176A, a product of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, allows EPA to establish, by rule, a transport region whenever the Administrator has reason to believe that the interstate transport of pollutants from one or more states contributes significantly to a violation of a NAAQS in another state or states.  

Petitioners’ Section 176A petition seeks to expand the Northeast Ozone Transport Region (OTR) to include the states of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. To review a copy of the petition click here.  It alleges that the targeted upwind states have failed to fulfill all Clean Air Act requirements because their air pollution control programs do not require the installation of controls as stringent as required by the OTR and because air pollution from the upwind states is transported into the OTR, thus contributing to violations of the 2008 National Ambient Air Quality Standard for ozone within the OTR states.  The Petitioners hope that the petition, if granted, will subject the targeted states to more stringent requirements in the form of revised State Implementation Plans for VOC and NOx emissions, including but not limited to additional requirements for enhanced Inspection and Maintenance of mobile sources, nonattainment New Source Review, and Reasonably Available Control Technology. Those opposed to Petitioners’ action question the technical basis for the petition, noting that it relies so heavily on data published no more recently than 2005.  The Administrator of USEPA has 18 months to approve or disapprove of the petition.  

The December 2013 Section 176A petition is the latest in a series of actions under the Clean Air Act to address interstate transport issues related to ozone in the Northeast. Many will recall that similar petitions were filed under Section 126 of the Clean Air Act in the late 1990’s even as USEPA was developing the NOx SIP Call.  That rulemaking was followed by the Clean Air Interstate Rule and then by the Cross State Air Pollution Rule.  

The Cross State Air Pollution Rule, which was struck down by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in August of 2012, sought to address transport concerns by imposing additional pollution control requirements on coal fired power plants in the eastern half of the country.  The Court of Appeals held that USEPA didn’t give states enough time to devise their own emissions reduction plans and did not limit the fix to each state’s “significant contribution” to the overall problem.  It is that rule that is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court and is the subject of a recent article written by Andrea Field. To review a copy of that article click here.  

Concerned About Recent Clean Air Act Activities? Want to Learn More Than What the Press Tells You? Then Seek Advice from Air Act Andy.

Posted on December 13, 2013 by Andrea Field

December 10, 2013 was a banner day in Clean Air Act jurisprudence.  On that date, the Supreme Court – which has heard only 19 environmental law cases in the past decade – set aside 90 minutes for argument concerning EPA’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR).  And at virtually the same time, just a short distance away, the D.C. Circuit was hearing challenges to major portions of EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxic Standards (MATS) Rule.  If you were unable to attend either argument but want to know more about the arguments than you can learn from the press reports, then this “Advice from Air Act Andy” column is for you.  

Question:  Based on questions asked by the Justices in the CSAPR argument, the press is predicting that the Supreme Court is going to reverse the D.C. Circuit’s vacatur and remand of CSAPR.  What do you think?

Air Act Andy:  I learned years ago (in an earlier case involving interstate transport of pollution under the Clean Air Act) that it is unwise (and ultimately embarrassing) to predict what a court will do based on the questions asked at oral argument.  That is particularly true of the December 10, 2013 CSAPR argument in the Supreme Court, where the vast majority of the Justices’ questions focused on what role costs should or may play in the drafting of a rule designed to address the interstate transport of air pollution.  Admittedly, many of the Justices seemed to be on the same costs-can-play-a-role-in-this-kind-of-rulemaking band wagon; however, the cost issue was not a key part of the D.C. Circuit’s decision.  (Indeed, some would say it wasn’t an issue at all in the D.C. Circuit.)  Because the Court spent so much time on the cost issue and asked so few questions about the other bases for the D.C. Circuit’s vacatur of CSAPR, it would be foolhardy to predict what the Court will decide on those other crucial issues (including the so-called FIP/SIP issue and over-control issue).

Question:  Was the CSAPR argument chocked full of analogies?

Air Act Andy:  Indeed, it was.  Malcolm Stewart (counsel for the government and apparently a basketball player) used a slew of basketball analogies to describe the concept of “significant contribution.”  There were also charitable giving analogies, a pin-the-tail on the donkey analogy (from Justice Scalia), a shooting-and-stabbing the victim analogy (from Chief Justice Roberts), and an extended cow and sheep grazing analogy (from Justice Breyer).

Question:  Did the Court take an exercise break in the midst of argument?

Air Act Andy:  Yes.  After Mr. Stewart’s argument, Chief Justice Roberts announced a “30 second break” during which several of the Justices stood up and did a limited round of Musical Chairs, but without removing any chairs.

Question:  Did a lawyer from Texas admit to being an agnostic?

Air Act Andy:  Kind of.  On the issue of the role that costs should play in interstate transport rules, Texas’s Solicitor General said that the states “are remaining agnostic.”        

Question:  It has been my experience that the D.C. Circuit initially imposes strict time limits on oral advocates, but it then routinely lets those presenting argument take extra time to address issues of interest to the court.  In the MATS case, the court gave the advocates much more time than usual to present their arguments.  In exchange for giving advocates more time up front, did the court insist that advocates sit down when the red light went on?

Air Act Andy:  That is not how it played out.  Chief Judge Garland (who sat on the panel along with Judge Rogers and Judge Kavanaugh), told counsel at the outset that the court would keep to the pre-allotted two hours designated for all 12 arguing attorneys, but – in fact – the MATS argument lasted three hours.  The panel peppered petitioners’ counsel and EPA’s counsel with questions, digging into several technical arguments with a fine-toothed comb of the record.  Not one petitioners’ counsel had any time left for rebuttal.  

Question:  I heard that the courtroom had an explosive feel.  Is that true?

Air Act Andy:  Ah, perhaps you are referring to the moment when Judge Garland’s heavy binder of materials crashed to the floor near the beginning of EPA counsel’s remarks during the first of three phases of the argument.  Unflappable as always, though, Judge Garland just told counsel to “Go ahead.” “Don’t mind us,” Judge Kavanaugh added.  

Question:  What is the appropriate dress for the Supreme Court?

Air Act Andy:  I am so glad you asked this question.  Based on what I saw people wearing on December 10, I would have said that “appropriate dress” is wearing anything that is black, charcoal gray, or navy blue.  Having returned to the Court the next day to hear a colleague of mine argue a case, though, I must now amend my answer.  When I arrived at the Court on December 11, wearing a long stylish gray cardigan sweater instead of a suit jacket, I was stopped by guards and politely told I would not be allowed to sit in the section reserved for members of the Supreme Court Bar unless I replaced my fashionable sweater with a suit jacket.  Someone from the clerk’s office then graciously provided me with a nice-fitting ladies suit jacket with a label indicating that the jacket was from the “Lady Executive Signature Collection.”  This is something Air Act Andy will keep in mind for the next visit to the Supreme Court – which will likely be in February 2014, when the Court is scheduled to hear argument on EPA’s greenhouse gas rules.  

EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Regulation Dodges a Bullet

Posted on November 22, 2013 by Leslie Carothers

Commentary on the Supreme Court’s grant of certiorari in the greenhouse gas case has addressed the question taken for review:  whether EPA permissibly decided that regulating motor vehicle greenhouse gas emissions triggered permitting regulations for stationary sources like power plants. (See Garrett and Buente blogs).  This is an interesting question of statutory interpretation, but it may be more important that the Court declined to review EPA’s fundamental finding that greenhouse gases “may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.”  The D.C. Circuit panel in the case agreed with EPA that the scientific evidence amply supported action under the precautionary standard of endangerment which  allowed the agency to act in the face of scientific uncertainty and without a complete  quantification of risks, costs, and benefits of regulation.  Relying on its 1976 decision upholding EPA’s regulation of lead additives in gasoline under the same part of the Clean Air Act, the D.C. Circuit panel had no difficulty concluding that EPA had made the case for control of greenhouse gases from motor vehicles as a precautionary rule.  This holding and its reasoning will be important support to EPA as the agency moves forward with the more complex and costly initiative to set emission standards for power plants.  Electric generating plants contributed over 38% of U.S. CO2 emissions in 2012, with coal-fired plants accounting for nearly three quarters of those emissions. 

Some observers may have dismissed the possibility of Supreme Court review of the endangerment finding considering the strength and complexity of the scientific evidence.  However, a Court that has eviscerated federal campaign finance and voting rights law, disregarding congressional intent and its own precedents, can’t be counted on to defer to a science-based EPA decision just because the overwhelming majority of scientists endorses the agency’s conclusions.  Some of the justices may well agree with Judge Janice Rogers Brown’s vigorous dissent from the D.C. Circuit’s vote to deny rehearing en banc of the panel decision.  Invoking memories of living near Los Angeles in the seventies when smog hid the mountain views, Judge Brown argued that the Clean Air Act is aimed at “inhaled” pollution of the type that kills people and not pollution that harms public health or welfare less directly through impairment of natural resources like water resources or crops by climate change—harm, as she put it, coming “at the end of a long speculative chain.” Though mistaken in her interpretation of the Clean Air Act, Judge Brown’s opinion illustrates the challenge of educating both the courts and the public on the more complex chains of causation involved in defining harm from ecological damage and less traditional pollutants.  Her opinion is a good reminder that advocates of regulation to safeguard  ecological resources, including our climate,  have work to do to build greater understanding of profoundly serious risks.

Grant of Certiorari in Greenhouse Gas Regulation Litigation: Limited But Important

Posted on October 30, 2013 by David Buente

Of the 21 separate questions presented in the 9 petitions for writ of certiorari filed in the U.S. Supreme Court in Utility Air Regulatory Group et al. v. Environmental Protection Agency et al., challenging nearly every aspect of the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent greenhouse gas regulations—from the initial “endangerment” finding to the restriction on motor vehicle emissions to the stationary-source permitting requirements—the Court granted review of only a single issue:  “[w]hether [EPA’s] regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from new motor vehicles triggered permitting requirements under the Clean Air Act for stationary sources that emit greenhouse gases.”  Several commentators have interpreted this decision (reported in a prior post by Theodore Garrett) as an implicit affirmation of EPA’s regulatory regime, insofar as the Court chose not to address some of the broader challenges to the agency’s basic authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.  But, whatever implications might be drawn from the Court’s decision not to grant review of certain issues, far more telling is the Court’s deliberate rewriting of the question presented, narrowly tailored to address the validity of the stationary-source permitting regulations.

Those regulations rest on an exceedingly questionable interpretation of the Clean Air Act.  The stationary-source provisions of the Act require any industrial facility that emits an “air pollutant” in “major” amounts—defined by the statute as 250 or more tons of the pollutant per year—to obtain pre-construction and operating permits from the local permitting authority.  42 U.S.C. § 7475.  EPA acknowledges that it would be “absurd” to apply these provisions by their terms to sources of greenhouse gas emissions, since nearly every business in the country (including even small commercial enterprises and residential facilities) emit greenhouse gases at more than 250 tons per year, and the agency can offer no reason why the statute should not be interpreted instead to apply only to the large industrial facilities that emit “major” amounts of a pollutant otherwise subject to regulation under the permitting provisions—i.e., one of the so-called “criteria pollutants” for which a national ambient air quality standard has been issued.  Nevertheless, EPA has interpreted the statute to apply to sources of greenhouse gas emissions and, to address the acknowledged “absurd results” created thereby, has decided that for these purposes the threshold for a “major” emissions source should be increased from 250 tons per year—as stated in the statute—by 400-fold, to 100,000 tons per year.  The agency has, in other words, literally rewritten the express terms of the statute in order to justify its preferred interpretation.

The dissenting judges in the D.C. Circuit severely criticized the result.  That is most likely the reason the Supreme Court granted review of the case, to correct the agency’s  interpretation of the Act and ensure that neither EPA nor other agencies attempt to redo legislative power in this way in the future.  Whether or not the limited nature of the certiorari grant can be viewed as an approval of EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases from mobile sources, it almost certainly reflects suspicion—if not disapproval—of the agency’s stationary-source regulations.  The definitive answer should come by June 2014, when the Court is expected to rule.