EPA Has Surprisingly Broad Authority to Regulate GHGs

Posted on January 28, 2016 by Michael Gerrard

Our friend Seth Jaffe wrote a very interesting blog on January 20, “Does the Paris Agreement Provide EPA With Authority Under the CAA to Impose Economy-Wide GHG Controls? Count Me Skeptical.”  It took issue with a paper that I co-authored with several other colleagues in academia in which we argue that Section 115 of the Clean Air Act provides the EPA with broad authority to implement a multi-state, multi-source, multi-gas regulatory system to reduce greenhouse gases.  

The blog post agreed with our paper that it would be great if Section 115 provided this authority because it means EPA could implement an efficient, flexible, cross-sectoral approach to reducing greenhouse gases (GHGs).

However, Seth questioned our conclusion that Section 115 provides such authority because, in his view, courts are likely to conclude the “reciprocity” requirement in Section 115 could not be satisfied by the nonbinding emissions reduction commitments countries made in the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) they submitted for the Paris agreement concluded at the United Nations climate conference in December.  In the words of blog post, “I think most judges would interpret the word ‘reciprocity’ in a statute to mean something that is legally-binding; otherwise, it doesn’t mean anything.”  For several reasons, we disagree.

First, a reviewing court does not need to interpret what the word “reciprocity” means in Section 115, because Congress has explicitly defined it.  Reciprocity is the title of Section 115(c), which provides:

"This section shall apply only to a foreign country which the Administrator determines has given the United States essentially the same rights with respect to the prevention or control of air pollution occurring in that country as is given that country by this section."

The only right given to a foreign country by Section 115 is a provision in Section 115(b) that states a foreign country affected by air pollution originating in the U.S. “shall be invited to appear at any public hearing” associated with the revision of a relevant portion of the state implementation plan to address the pollutant.  In short, Section 115 specifies that reciprocity means the foreign countries in question need to have given the U.S. “essentially the same rights” as are given by Section 115, and the only right provided in Section 115 is the procedural right to appear at a hearing. 

Understanding the legislative history helps explain why the focus of the reciprocity requirement is on a procedural right.  As we explain in detail in the paper, Section 115 was a procedural provision when it was first enacted in 1965:  if pollution from the U.S. was endangering other countries, the other countries had a right to participate in abatement conferences where potential responses would be discussed, not a right to insist on actual emission reductions.  Although Congress amended the provision in the 1977 Clean Air Amendments to replace the abatement conference with federal and state action through the Section 110 state implementation plan process, the reciprocity language in Section 115(c) was not changed, leaving it with its procedural test.     

Second, we note in our paper that the Paris agreement contains a new set of procedures through which countries that join the agreement will be able to review and provide input on each other’s respective emissions reductions plans.  To the extent a court might conclude that such procedural rights must be "legally binding," then the Paris agreement satisfies that test because although the emission reduction targets themselves that were submitted in the INDCs will not be legally enforceable by other countries, the procedural elements of the Paris agreement will be binding international law.  

We note in the paper that although Paris provides a strong basis to satisfy Section 115 reciprocity, that reciprocity could also be satisfied by other international arrangements that the United States has with a variety of countries, particularly Mexico and Canada, the EU, and China.

Third, the blog post does not engage the issue of procedural reciprocity; rather it focuses on a substantive view of reciprocity (i.e. that reciprocity requires that other countries are actually reducing emissions of GHGs) and asserts that substantive reciprocity requirement could not be met by the internationally non-binding commitments made in the INDCs.  Although we believe that the correct reading of Section 115 is that it only requires procedural reciprocity, we recognize that a court could conclude that Section 115 also implicitly includes a substantive reciprocity requirement.  In the first instance, we noted that this requirement might be met by the international law principle sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedus, which directs nations to avoid causing significant injuries to the environment of other nations, most recently explained in the International Court of Justice’s Pulp Mills case.  

The author skips over this element to focus his skepticism that the reciprocity requirement could be satisfied by non-binding commitments in the INDCs.  But actually the U.S. and other countries have made reciprocally non-binding commitments in their INDCs.  That is, the U.S. has made an international political commitment to reduce emissions a certain amount, and has received essentially the same rights in the non-binding international commitments from other countries to reduce emissions.  

Someone could argue that the U.S. INDC may be non-binding, but Section 115 is domestic law in the U.S. and substantive reciprocity cannot exist unless other countries also have domestic laws requiring emission reductions.  If this is the test, however, it can also be met.  In fact, the INDCs submitted by other countries identified the binding domestic laws through which the INDCs would be implemented.  We did not focus on this aspect in our paper, but some examples are: (1) the United States identified the Clean Air Act and other laws and regulations “relevant to implementation” of the U.S. commitment; (2) China identified the measures that had been incorporated into domestic law and regulation through previous five-year plans, and outlined a variety of policies and strategies that would be incorporated into subsequent five-year plans to implement their emissions commitment; and (3) the EU noted that the necessary legislation to implement its target was being introduced to the EU parliament in 2015 and 2016.  Therefore, if “legally binding” domestic laws are required to find reciprocity under Section 115, EPA could reasonably examine the legally binding provisions in other countries’ domestic systems to find that reciprocity.

To summarize, our view is that Section 115 likely requires only procedural reciprocity.  If a court concluded Section 115 required substantive reciprocity, then EPA could reasonably find that requirement met through the reciprocal political commitments that the U.S. and other countries made in Paris as well as through the binding domestic laws and regulations in the U.S. and other countries that will implement the commitments.

We look forward to further dialog on this topic, which we think is an important part of unlocking this powerful, untapped tool that the EPA possesses to design an efficient and flexible system to reduce GHGs.

Comments (1) -

Seth Jaffe United States
1/28/2016 4:03:40 PM #

Nice rebuttal, but I'm still not convinced.  First, I just see nothing in the reciprocity language of s. 115 that would limit it to procedural reciprocity.  Second, on the substance, reciprocity is not a new term in the law.  It's actually defined in Black's.  It's generally considered a reciprocity of "rights."  Thus, if not limited to procedural issues, then it has to mean more than voluntary contributions, because those don't represent enforceable rights.

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