On February 24th, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA– the case which challenges EPA’s attempt to phase in permitting requirements for sources of greenhouse gases (GHGs). In the end, the case may be much to do about nothing…except another example of how congressional gridlock prevents logical resolutions to complex issues.
Challenge to EPA’s Tailoring Rule
In Massachusetts v. EPA, the Supreme Court upheld the ability of EPA to regulate GHGs from motor vehicles (the so called "Tailpipe Rule"). In that decision the Court determined that the term "any air pollutant" included GHGs so long as EPA determined GHGs were a threat to public health and environment.
EPA determined GHGs were a threat to public health and the environment in its "Endangerment Finding." The Supreme Court declined to hear the case challenging EPA’s finding. Following EPA’s determination, GHGs officially became a regulated air pollutant under the Clean Air Act.
Following EPA’s Endangerment Finding, EPA concluded that complex federal permitting requirements (PSD and Title V) would also be triggered for sources of GHG because the term "any air pollutant" was used in that portion of the Clean Air Act as well. Pursuant to that section of the Act, any facility that emits more the 100/250 tons per year of a pollutant regulated under the Act must go through EPA’s New Source Review (NSR) program. As part of NSR, new sources or existing sources that are modified must demonstrate they have installed Best Available Control Technology (BACT) to reduce emissions of each regulated air permit.
Because GHGs are emitted in much greater quantities than typical Clean Air Act pollutants, EPA was concerned that application of the 100/250 ton per year threshold to GHGs would trigger thousands of permits. EPA indicated the Agency and States did not have the capacity to process that number of permits.
To address the situation, EPA promulgated the Tailoring Rule to temporarily raise the permitting thresholds. Under the first stage of the Tailoring Rule, new facilities that emit 100,000 tons per year of carbon dioxide-equivalent and existing facilities that increase their emissions by 75,000 tons per year of carbon dioxide-equivalent will trigger NSR,
Petitioners challenged EPA’s Tailoring Rule by arguing EPA did not have the authority to simply re-write the statute. They also pointed to language in the PSD portion of the Clean Air Act which suggests PSD was meant to apply to pollutants with local impacts, not global impacts. Industry challengers were concerned that allowing 90 different state and local permitting authorities to decide what constituted BACT for GHGs would be chaos.
Justices Highlight the "Absurdity" of EPA’s Proposal
EPA justified its Tailoring Rule based on the legal theory that it would temporarily adjust the 250/100 trigger thresholds because applying those thresholds immediately to GHGs would lead to "absurd results."
Justice Kagan noted that the purpose of the 250/100 trigger thresholds were to differentiate between large and small sources. Justices Breyer and Alito followed that point by noting EPA’s position was illogical in that EPA said the trigger thresholds led to absurd results, yet EPA would eventually work toward utilizing those thresholds for GHGs.
Clearly, the Justices were highlighting a core issue with EPA’s Tailoring Rule. Perhaps it would have been better to simply pick a more logical threshold for GHGs that would have differentiated between large and small sources of GHGs.
EPA’s attorney basically acknowledged that may have been a better approach, but EPA was concerned simply coming up with an entirely new threshold went beyond its authority. EPA argued, rather than totally eliminating the 250/100 thresholds for GHGs, EPA would re-interpret other policy positions to try capture only larger sources. For example, EPA could look at a source’s actual emissions versus their potential-to-emit (assumed operation 24/7) when determining if the 250/100 ton threshold was exceeded for GHGs.
EPA’s argument seems pretty weak. It is not simply the administrative burden of regulating thousands and thousands of sources of GHGs. Rather, it is the fact such approach clearly goes against the intent of the Clean Air Act PSD regulations to regulate only large sources. The Court seemed troubled by EPA’s attempt to temporarily raise permitting thresholds.
Challenge to EPA’s Tailoring Rule Becomes "Much to do About Nothing"
While the Court seemed troubled by EPA’s approach, even if it vacates the Tailoring Rule, the Court’s decision will likely have very little impact on EPA’s overall effort to regulate GHGs.
Challengers conceded in their briefs that EPA has the authority to regulate GHGs from sources of other pollutants subject to National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for which geographic area is in attainment (referred to as "anyway sources"). As noted by Chief Justice Roberts, this construction would allow EPA to regulate 83% of GHG stationary source emissions versus 86% under EPA’s more expansive reading.
When Justices pressed why they should care about a fight over 3% of the emissions, EPA’s attorney argued such an interpretation would be inconsistent with EPA’s prior interpretations. However, Justice Breyer noted that such an interpretation "does less violence" to the Clean Air Act than EPA’s proposed ratcheting up of the 250/100 trigger thresholds.
Based on questioning from the Justices, the most likely outcome of the case is that only 3% of emissions will be impacted either way.
Supreme Court Argument Highlights the Problem with an Ineffectual Congress
Virtually everyone, including EPA, concedes the 250/100 tons thresholds don’t make sense when applied to GHGs. EPA has previously admitted that the Clean Air Act, as currently constructed, is ill suited for regulation of GHGs. However, with Congress unable to compromise, the country is left with the false choice of doing nothing to combat climate change or utilize an Act that was last amended nearly 25 years ago.
The stakes on climate change are simply too high to be left with this result. The "do nothing" approach on climate change is a non-starter. However, the uncertainty and "absurdity" that results from using the current Clean Air Act construct to regulate GHGs has unreasonable implications for industry.
Climate change regulation has greater implications for the county than, perhaps, even the original issues that shaped the Clean Air Act. Yet, the inability of Congress to reach middle ground will result in the institution of imperfect and impractical climate change regulations.
[Photo courtesy www.TheEnvironmentalBlog.org]