Posted on May 14, 2019 by Paul Seals
Citing cooperative federalism, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 6 Regional Administrator has proposed to withdraw the agency’s 2015 determination that the affirmative defense provisions in Texas’ State Implementation Plan (SIP) applicable to excess emissions that occurred during upsets and unplanned events made the SIP substantially inadequate to meet Clean Air Act (CAA) requirements. 84 FR 17986 (April 29, 2019). The proposal, if finalized, would reinstate Texas’ affirmative defense provisions that had been approved by the EPA in 2010 and upheld by the Fifth Circuit in 2013. See Luminant Generation Co. v. EPA, 714 F.3d 841 (5th Cir, 2013, cert. denied) holding that the EPA’s interpretation of the CAA to allow certain affirmative defenses as to civil penalties in section 110 SIPs was a permissible interpretation warranting deference.
The proposal was in response to Texas’ petition for the EPA to reconsider the 2015 Texas SIP call and reinstate EPA’s prior interpretation regarding affirmative defenses for malfunctions.
In 2015, the EPA had reversed its interpretation of the legality of affirmative defense provisions in CAA section 110 SIPs following the decision of the D.C. Circuit in NRDC v. EPA, 749 F.3d 1055 (D.C. Cir. 2014), which addressed the legality of affirmative defense provisions in a certain national emission standard for hazardous air pollutants (NESHAP) established under CAA section 112. In vacating the affirmative defense provisions, the D.C. Circuit held that the CAA gives district courts sole authority in federal enforcement proceedings to determine whether a penalty for a violation of a section 112 NESHAP is appropriate. The EPA reconsidered the legal basis for affirmative defense provisions in CAA section 110 SIPs and concluded that the reasoning of the D.C. Circuit in NRDC should extend to state affirmative defense provisions in CAA section 110 SIPs. Texas and 16 other states were subject to a SIP call to revise their SIPs consistent with the 2015 interpretation.
EPA Region 6 now believes the policy position on affirmative defense SIP provisions for malfunctions as upheld by the Fifth Circuit’s Luminant decision should be maintained and that it is not appropriate to extend the D.C. Circuit’s reasoning in NRDC to the affirmative defense provisions in the Texas SIP.
It is important to note that the EPA Region 6 sought and obtained concurrence from the requisite EPA Headquarters office to propose an action inconsistent with the EPA’s interpretation of affirmative defense provisions contained in the 2015 SIP call.
What should the other 16 states, subject to the SIP call based on EPA’s 2015 interpretation, make of this proposal? Does it simply reflect the special circumstances surrounding Texas’ affirmative defense provisions – a prior approval by the EPA, which was upheld by the Fifth Circuit? Or, is it the first step in a new policy with national applicability?