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.



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