Three Strikes Against Deference in the Same Month

Posted on August 27, 2012 by Robert Brubaker

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

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

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

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

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

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



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