Revisiting Rules: How Far Back Is Too Far Back?

Posted on December 29, 2009 by Andrea Field

Recently, while searching my bookshelves for a missing volume, I came upon a three-ringed binder of documents related to EPA’s 1980 PSD rules. Of particular interest to me were (1) my October 30, 1980 letter to then-EPA Administrator Douglas Costle asking that he clarify parts of those 1980 PSD rules, and (2) Administrator Costle’s letter responding to my inquiry. In his response, Administrator Costle assured me that the Agency would positively address my concerns in technical and conforming amendments that EPA was then preparing.

Any possible euphoria that I might have felt at the positive tone of Administrator Costle’s response was more than offset by the date of his letter: January 19, 1981, the day before Administrator Costle would be leaving EPA in advance of the inauguration of Ronald Reagan.   Even early in my legal career almost thirty years ago, I knew I could not put much faith in the well-intentioned assurances of an outgoing EPA Administrator. The incoming Administrator would look at all pending issues with fresh eyes and might – or might not – decide to continue down the path laid out by Administrator Costle.

In fact, the incoming Reagan Administration decided to re-examine many of the actions taken by the Carter Administration in its waning days.   Just as – 12 years later – the incoming Clinton Administration re-examined actions taken by the Bush (41) Administration as it left office; and 8 years after that, the new Bush (43) Administration re-thought actions of the departing Clinton Administration; and now -- 8 years later -- the Obama Administration is revisiting actions of the Bush Administration.         

I do not here bemoan the fact that new administrations want to revisit the end-of-term decisions made by their predecessors. I ask, though, how far back in time should new administrations reach in their “revisitings”? We have come to expect incoming regulators to review rules that are still in proposed form and to pull back from publication rules that were only recently signed but have not yet been published in the Federal Register. We have also come to expect incoming administrations to look at rules that were published by a previous administration and are the subject of ongoing litigation so that new regulators can determine if they wish to continue to defend their predecessors’ rules or, instead, to re-examine those rules.

What happens, though, when a new administration reaches back to reexamine rules that have been on the books for many months or even years and that are in the midst of being implemented by the states and the regulated community? And what happens if the new administration wants to keep in place portions of a rule but wishes to scrap the remainder of the rule? This is happening now as EPA reconsiders the ozone ambient standard rule that was adopted by the Bush EPA early in 2008 and that is now the subject of litigation in the D.C. Circuit. No one would have been surprised if the new administration had asked the D.C. Circuit to remand the 2008 ozone standard rule so that EPA engage in a sped-up rulemaking to develop new/replacement ozone standards while continuing to implement the 2008 rule. Instead of doing that, though, EPA is essentially asking the D.C. Circuit to divide its ozone rule into pieces, thus allowing EPA to implement parts of the ozone rule while essentially trying to stay implementation of other parts of the regulation.

A new administration’s going back farther in time to “undo” programs currently being implemented -- and trying to stay portions of those programs while continuing to press for implementation of other parts of the programs -- is disruptive for both regulators and the regulated community. I hope that the D.C. Circuit recognizes this in the ozone ambient standard litigation and decides to impose a rational framework for this – and any new -- administration to follow as it goes down the well-trod path of trying to change a rule of its predecessors.



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