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

Posted on August 30, 2012 by Patricia Finn Braddock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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