Environmental Appeals Board Tees Up Carbon Dioxide Issue to Obama Administration

Posted on December 4, 2008 by Stephen M. Bruckner

In a decision that will have far-reaching implications for coal-fired power plants, EPA's Environmental Appeals Board ("EAB") ruled on November 14, 2008 that EPA's Region 8 must reconsider whether carbon dioxide ("CO2") is a regulated air pollutant covered by the Clear Air Act's Prevention of Significant Deterioration ("PSD") permitting program. Because there is so little time left for EPA to finalize its decision, the EAB's ruling effectively drops this hot button issue squarely on the doorstep of the incoming Obama administration.

 

            The procedural posture of this case is a bit unusual. Deseret Power Electric Cooperative ("Deseret") operates a coal-fired power plant, the Bonanza Power Plant, on the Uintah and Ourah Indian Reservation in Utah. Deseret wants to build a new waste-coal-fired plant at the same location. The new plant needs a "PSD permit" to regulate its emissions under the Clean Air Act. A PSD permit requires the installation of "Best Available Control Technology", or "BACT", for regulated pollutants.

 

            Most PSD permits are issued by state environmental agencies. However, because Deseret's power plant is located on an Indian reservation, EPA's Region 8 is the permitting authority. EPA issued the PSD permit to Deseret on August 30, 2007. The Sierra Club, which had submitted comments to EPA on the proposed permit, appealed the permitting decision to the Environmental Appeals Board. Sierra Club argued that the permit violated the Clean Air Act because the Act requires BACT for each pollutant "subject to regulation" under the Act. [Clean Air Act §§ 165(a)(4), 168(3); 42 U.S.C. §§ 7475(a)(4), 7478(3)].

 

            The EAB rejected the Sierra Club's argument. The EAB carefully reviewed the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497 (2007), which held that CO2 is within the Clean Air Act's definition of "air pollutant". The EAB noted that the Massachusetts decision did not address whether carbon dioxide is a pollutant "subject to regulation" under the Clean Air Act. The EAB therefore rejected the Sierra Club's argument that the phrase "subject to regulation" has a plain meaning that requires Region 8 to establish a CO2 limit in Deseret's permit.

 

            But that was pretty much the end of the good news for EPA and Deseret. In making its permit decision on CO2, EPA Region 8 relied on prior EPA interpretations addressing when a pollutant is considered to be "regulated". The EAB ruled that the reasons cited by Region 8 for its decision were not sufficient. The EAB then sent the case back to Region 8 to 'reconsider whether or not to impose a CO2 BACT limit in light of the Agency's discretion to interpret, consistent with the CAA [Clean Air Act], what constitutes a "pollutant subject to regulation under the Act."' [Deseret decision at p. 63]. Recognizing the potential impact of its ruling and of Region 8's further consideration, the EAB observed that because the issue "has implications far beyond this individual permitting proceeding", Region 8 should decide whether it would be better to address the matter in "an action of nationwide scope". [Deseret decision, pp. 63-64].

 

            Clearly, then, the Sierra Club was denied the clear victory it sought; namely, to require BACT for carbon dioxide in all coal-fired power plant PSD permits. On the other hand, Deseret and other electric utilities seeking PSD permits are left hanging as to whether CO2 will be a regulated pollutant under the PSD program. Although EPA probably wants to resolve this case before the expiration of President Bush's term, as a practical matter, it simply cannot get it done in little more than a month. Thus, the incoming Administration must squarely confront an issue that could shape the climate change debate and, ultimately, energy policy in this country. EPA most likely will take the hint from the EAB and handle the matter through "an action of nationwide scope". How it turns out is anyone's guess, but it is fair to say that the new EPA will have more climate change hawks in policy positions than the current Agency.

Cut the Sprawl, Cut the Warming

Posted on October 7, 2008 by Jeff Thaler

For years, while Washington slept, most of the serious work on climate change has occurred in the states, and no state has worked harder than California. The latest example of California’s originality is a new law — the nation’s first — intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by curbing urban sprawl and cutting back the time people have to spend in their automobiles.

Passenger vehicles are the biggest single source of carbon dioxide in California, producing nearly one-third of the total. Meanwhile, the number of miles driven in California has increased 50 percent faster than the rate of population growth, largely because people have to drive greater distances in their daily lives.

The new law has many moving parts, but the basic sequence is straightforward. The state’s Air Resources Board will determine the level of emissions produced by cars and light trucks, including S.U.V.’s, in each of California’s 17 metropolitan planning areas. Emissions-reduction goals for 2020 and 2035 would be assigned to each area. Local governments would then devise strategies for housing development, road-building and other land uses to shorten travel distances, reduce driving and meet the new targets.

One obvious solution would be to change zoning laws so developers can build new housing closer to where people work. Another is to improve mass transit — in woefully short supply in California — so commuters don’t have to rely so much on cars.

The bill contains significant incentives, including the promise of substantial federal and state money to regions whose plans pass muster. In addition, and with the consent of the environmental community, the state will relax various environmental rules to allow “infill” — higher-density land use in or near cities and towns.

The bill’s architect, State Senator Darrell Steinberg, worked closely with developers and environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council. The measure is the latest in a string of initiatives from the California Legislature, including a 2002 law that would greatly reduce carbon emissions from automobiles, and a 2006 law requiring that one-fifth of California’s energy come from wind and other renewable sources.

Given California’s size, these and other initiatives will help reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. Even more progress would be made if others follow. New York and 15 other states have already said they will adopt California’s automobile emissions standards when the federal government gives them the green light — which the Bush administration has stubbornly refused to do.

There is, of course, no substitute for federal action or for American global leadership on climate change, both of which the next president will have to deliver.

EPA IN THE DC CIRCUIT - WHERE HAS ALL THE DEFERENCE GONE?

Posted on September 23, 2008 by Linda Bochert
  • June 2007: DC Circuit Hands EPA and Industry Two Defeats:  Court Rejects EPA MACT Air Rules for Commercial and Industrial Boilers and Plywood and Composite Wood Products
  • February and July 2008: DC Circuit to EPA: Multi-Pollutant Strategy for Interstate Clean Air Fails to Meet Clean Air Act Requirements

Several recent cases have raised the following question in my mind: can EPA win an air case in the DC Circuit?

They teach us in law school that governmental agencies can expect a reasonable degree of deference from a reviewing court when exercising statutory authority to develop regulations to implement Congressional directives. States and entities subject to EPA’s regulations need something to rely on, and expect EPA and the Courts to provide some degree of predictability and certainty in the application of the regulations. Yet deference is nowhere to be found in the DC Circuit’s recent reviews of several EPA regulations implementing the Clean Air Act (CAA). And in each of the cases discussed below, the Court opted for the most dramatic remedy – vacatur of the offending rule.

These decisions can be sliced and diced from a variety of perspectives. At the least I think they raise vexing concerns about deference and choice of remedy. What do you think – are these the trend or the anomalies? Is this a real concern or much ado about nothing?

 

Here are my examples:

 1. June 2007: Commercial and Industrial Boiler MACT Rules

On June 8, 2007, in Natural Resources Defense Council v. EPA, No. 04-1385 (D.C. Cir. June 8, 2007) (NRDC I) the DC Circuit struck down two EPA rules setting air toxics limitations for commercial and industrial boilers and solid waste incinerators: National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants for Industrial, Commercial, and Institutional Boilers and Process Heaters (Boilers Rule) and Standards of Performance for New Stationary Sources and Emission Guidelines for Existing Sources: Commercial and Industrial Solid Waste Incineration Units (CISWI Definitions Rule).

At issue were the emission standards for hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) emitted from commercial and industrial solid waste incinerators and industrial boilers and the appropriate setting of the Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) standard.

The challenge was brought by environmental petitioners Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, and the Environmental Integrity Project. The Court agreed with them that EPA had impermissibly narrowed the definition of “commercial or industrial waste” in the CISWI Definitions Rule in violation of the plain language of section 129 of the Clean Air Act. Because the Boilers Rule was dependent on that same definition, both rules were rejected by the Court. EPA and industry representatives, including the Coalition for Responsible Waste Incineration, Utility Air Regulatory Group, and Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, contended that EPA’s definition was within the agency’s discretion, but the Court was not persuaded.

 

2. June 2007: Plywood and Composite Wood Products MACT Rules

On June 19, 2007, the DC Circuit dealt a second blow in a challenge to EPA’s rules to regulate HAPs from processing plywood and composite wood products (PCWP). Also named Natural Resources Defense Council v. EPA, No. 04-1323 (D.C. Cir. June 19, 2007) (NRDC II), this case was also brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and the Environmental Integrity Project against EPA. EPA was supported by industry groups, including the American Forest and Paper Association.

The two rules involved in this case were the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants: Plywood and Composite Wood Products (2004 Rule) and the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants: Plywood and Composite Wood Products; List of Hazardous Air Pollutants, Lesser Quantity Designations, Source Category List (2006 Rule), with the primary challenge to the 2006 Rule. Example of operations regulated by these rules include sawmills with lumber kilns, hardwood and softwood plywood and veneer plants, particleboard/fibreboard and other reconstituted wood product plants, and engineered wood product plants.

Once again, the issue was the appropriate MACT standard. In this case the pivotal elements were EPA’s decisions in the 2004 Rule to create a “low-risk subcategory” and in the 2006 Rule to extend the compliance deadline from October 2007 to October 2008.

 

3. February 2008: Clean Air Mercury Rule (CAMR)

On February 8, 2008, the DC Circuit struck down CAMR in New Jersey v. EPA, No. 05-1097 (D.C. Cir. Feb. 8, 2008). CAMR was the result of EPA’s decision to remove oil and coal-fired electric utility steam generating units (EGUs) from the list of sources of hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) and instead regulate mercury emissions from these EGUs through a cap-and-trade program similar to the Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR).

In response, New Jersey, and several other states, municipal governments and environmental groups, challenged CAMR claiming that EPA had no authority to delist the EGUs without providing a “specific finding” under section 112(c)(9) of the CAA. Because EPA did not make this specific finding, the Petitioners claimed that not only was the delisting invalid, but CAMR was also flawed because it was based upon this delisting decision. The DC Circuit agreed with the Petitioners, vacating both the delisting rule and CAMR.

 

4. July 2008: Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR)

On July 11, 2008, the D.C. Circuit vacated CAIR in North Carolina v. EPA, No. 05-1244 (D.C. Cir. July 11, 2008).

The multi-party challenge to CAIR was brought by the state of North Carolina, several electric utilities (SO2 Petitioners), specific electric utilities in Texas, Florida and Minnesota, one municipality, and the Florida Association of Electric Utilities (FAEU). The electric utilities in Texas, Florida and Minnesota challenged CAIR’s applicability to them because of their location and emissions amounts. North Carolina, the SO2 Petitioners, and FAEU brought substantive challenges to the regulation, claiming that EPA did not have the discretion to act as it did, or it did so unreasonably.

The Court agreed with North Carolina and the SO2 Petitioners, holding that CAIR failed to meet the requirements of the CAA and finding “EPA’s approach – regionwide caps with no state-specific quantitative contribution determinations or emissions requirements – is fundamentally flawed.”

 Is vacatur the best remedy?

 In all four of these cases, the Court chose to vacate rather than remand the rules. The dissent in the CISWI/Boilers Rules case unsuccessfully argued that remand without vacating the rules was preferable“[b]ecause the rules would ensure greater protection to public health and the environment during the time EPA will need to develop and promulgate new rules.” The majority was unpersuaded and preferred no rules at all. Is that really the best option for the environment?

And the language the Court uses implies more than a lack of deference. In vacating CAIR, a decision described as “unexpected” by both proponents and opponents, the Court described the rule as “fundamentally flawed” and directed EPA to “redo its analysis from the ground up.” In vacating CAMR, the Court characterized EPA as “deploy[ing] the logic of the Queen of Hearts.” What’s going on here?

Kansas Agency Denies Air Quality Construction Permit for Coal-Fired Generating Units Based Solely on Projected CO2 Emissions

Posted on February 19, 2008 by Charles Efflandt

On October 18, 2007, the head of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE), Secretary Roderick Bremby, denied an air quality permit application for two proposed 700-megawatt coal-fired generating units to be constructed in Holcomb, Kansas. The application was submitted by Sunflower Electric Power Company as part of a planned $3.6 billion expansion of an existing facility. The Secretary’s decision to deny the permit was based solely on the projected carbon dioxide emissions from these units and the impact of such emissions on climate change. Carbon dioxide is not specifically regulated as an air pollutant in Kansas.

In announcing his decision, which rejected the recommendation of agency staff that the permit be granted, the Secretary stated “I believe it would be irresponsible to ignore emerging information about the contribution of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to climate change and the potential harm to our environment and health if we do nothing.” The expanded facility was projected to release an estimated 11 million tons of carbon dioxide annually. The Secretary did not indicate at what level projected carbon dioxide emissions would, in his opinion, threaten human health and the environment. Thus, the Secretary left open the question of how other CO2 emitting facilities would be regulated in Kansas in the future. Although a number of states have entered into regional initiatives or enacted legislation designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions over time, it is believed that KDHE’s outright denial of an air quality permit based solely on perceived “excessive” emissions of an unregulated greenhouse gas is a first in the nation.

The cited legal support for the decision is an opinion of the Kansas Attorney General that, notwithstanding specific statutes or rules regulating air emissions, K.S.A. 65-3012 gives KDHE the broad authority to take any permitting or other action deemed necessary should the Secretary make a factual determination that a particular emission constitutes an air pollutant and that such emissions threaten health or the environment. The “factual determination” supporting the Secretary’s conclusion that carbon dioxide is an air pollutant and that this particular facility’s projected carbon dioxide emissions would constitute a threat to health and the environment is not apparent from the permit denial decision.

On November 16, 2007, Sunflower Electric Power Corporation filed two lawsuits seeking to overturn KDHE’s permit denial decision challenging the legal authority for the agency’s decision.

Not surprisingly, the KDHE’s permit denial decision has generated substantial controversy. A media campaign was immediately launched by those opposing the KDHE’s decision. The theme of that campaign is that the Secretary’s claimed authority could logically be extended to other facilities and potentially other unregulated emissions to the general detriment of the state and its ability to attract and retain business.

In a subsequent action perceived as an attempt to diffuse this criticism, the Secretary announced the decision to approve an air quality permit for an ethanol plant, notwithstanding the facility’s carbon dioxide emissions. Although the projected CO2 emissions from the ethanol facility are substantially less than those of the proposed coal-fired generating plant, the KDHE’s approval of the ethanol plant permit did not elaborate on the specific factual and scientific bases for distinguishing the facilities. Thus, it remains unclear in Kansas what quantity of projected carbon dioxide emissions may exceed the unspecified level deemed by KDHE to constitute an unacceptable global warming threat.

State law-makers in both chambers of the legislature are presently considering several bills directed at the Secretary’s permit denial decision. Provisions of the various bills include legislation specifically “over-turning” the Secretary’s decision, the enactment of phased-in limitations on CO2 emissions with a “carbon tax” penalty for violators, and a variety of alternative energy incentives and requirements. Most of the bills being considered are being opposed by the governor and environmental groups as being hastily conceived and inadequate to meet the future health and regulatory challenges of greenhouse gas emissions in the state.

For more information please contact Charles Efflandt, practice group leader of the Environmental and Natural Resources team, Foulston Siefkin L.L.P., Wichita, Kansas http://www.foulston.com.

California v. U.S. EPA--Fighting for the Last Word on Mobile Source Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Posted on February 19, 2008 by Lee A. DeHihns, III

Following the United States Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, deciding that greenhouse gases are a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, a federal-state skirmish has emerged in the climate change arena over mobile source emissions. The United States Government estimates that the transportation sector accounts for approximately one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Over the past months, the question of how to reduce those emissions has evolved into a dramatic political and legal battle, pitting California’s Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger against U.S. President George Bush. 

The stage for this tussle was set long ago when Congress adopted the federal Clean Air Act and included in the law a special provision for California. Specifically, Section 209(a) of the Clean Air Act prohibits individual states from adopting emission standards for new motor vehicles. However, in recognition of California’s unique smog problems, a subsection (b) was added to enable California to adopt standards more stringent than federal standards so long as it applies for and obtains a waiver from the U.S. EPA. As one court recently explained, under Section 209(b), “Congress has essentially designated California as a proving ground for innovation in emission control regulations.” Other states are then free to adopt California’s standards pursuant to Section 177 of the Clean Air Act, so long as the standards are adopted at least two years before the model year that they regulate. 

In 2002, California invoked its unique Clean Air Act authority to address greenhouse gas emissions from mobile sources. In particular, the State passed AB 1493 requiring the California Air Resources Board to develop and adopt regulations for the greenhouse gas emissions of passenger automobiles and light duty trucks. In September of 2004, the Air Resources Board adopted standards that apply to such vehicles beginning with model year 2009. As required by the Clean Air Act, California then requested a waiver from the U.S. EPA so that the standards could enter into force. While the waiver request was pending, no less than sixteen other states lined up to adopt California’s standards—for all practical purposes, the California standards were poised to become the de facto national standard.  

Automobile manufacturers challenged those regulations in federal courts in both Vermont and California, arguing that the state automobile emission standards for greenhouse gases constituted fuel efficiency standards, and that fuel efficiency standards are exclusively regulated by the federal government under the Environmental Policy and Conservation Act (“EPCA”).[1] Both courts rejected the manufacturers’ challenges, deciding that federal law did not preempt California’s ability to affect fuel economy through the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, so long as the U.S. EPA granted a waiver under the Clean Air Act—the stage was set for a showdown between California and the U.S. EPA.

The U.S. EPA played its hand slowly. During the summer of 2007, the U.S. EPA held hearings on California’s waiver request. Perhaps foreshadowing its upcoming decision on the request, the U.S. EPA then announced in the fall that it would begin its own “Rulemaking To Address Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Motor Vehicles,” planning for the adoption of federal regulations by October 2008. Finally, the shot was fired on December 19, 2007, when Stephen Johnson, the U.S. EPA Administrator, held a press conference announcing his agency would not grant a waiver to California’s regulation. At the same time, President Bush signed a new energy bill, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, requiring a fleet average of thirty-five miles per gallon by 2020 and an annual production of thirty-six billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2022.[2] In making the announcement, Johnson specifically cited Bush’s recent signing of the bill and said, “The Bush administration is moving forward with a clear national solution, not a confusing patchwork of state rules. I believe this is a better approach than if individual states were to act alone.”

Retaliation came swiftly. Little more than two weeks after Johnson’s announcement, California, along with 15 other states and five environmental groups, petitioned the Ninth Circuit on January 2, 2008, for review of the waiver denial.  In the lawsuit, California will need to make the case that its regulation under Section 209 was necessary to “meet compelling and extraordinary conditions.”  As a coastal state with limited fresh water resources, the effect of climate change on California may indeed be severe, involving rising sea levels, a reduction in the Sierra snow pack, and higher temperatures that would exacerbate the state’s ozone nonattainment problem, which is already the worst in the nation. A recent Stanford University study added fodder to this argument when it found Californians’ health will be disproportionately affected by greenhouse gas emissions, because the state is home to six of the most polluted cities in the United States. California will also need to make the case under section 209, that its standards “will be, in the aggregate, at least as protective of public health and welfare as applicable Federal standards.” To that end, the California Air Resources Board released a January 2, 2008, assessment that concludes the federal law, even when fully implemented, will not be as effective as California’s standards at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from new vehicles. Even if California is successful, California’s regulation will have to be modified as it was to apply to 2009 model cars—models that will shortly be coming to market. 

The EPA’s first legal maneuver in response to California’s petition may be to request a transfer from the Ninth Circuit to the more agency-friendly D.C. Circuit. Most challenges of EPA regulations must be filed in the D.C. Circuit—the relevant jurisdictional trigger being whether the action has “nationwide scope or effect.”  While the issue of the waiver makes its way through the courts, the U.S. EPA’s rulemaking will also go forward. To meet its goal of final action by October 2008, the U.S. EPA will have to move quickly, with the public comment period coming by summer 2008 at the latest. 

As these battles are fought, looming on the horizon is a general election in November, and a new federal administration beginning in January of 2009. If the U.S. EPA adopts regulations in October 2008 that do not go as far as the California standards, yet another legal challenge seems almost inevitable, if for no other reason than to stall any final rule until the administration changeover. When the dust does settle, presumably in 2009, the road to mobile source emission reductions will finally be paved.

Michèle Corash is a partner in the international law firm of Morrison & Foerster LLP and a member of the firm’s environmental law practice group. She served as General Counsel of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from 1979 to 1982 and previously as Deputy General Counsel for the U.S. Department of Energy and Special Assistant to the Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission. Ms. Corash has consistently been listed in American Lawyer’s Corporate Counsel among the “Best Lawyers in America for Environmental Law” and in numerous other publications as being at the top of her field. She represents companies on a broad range of state, national and international environmental issues and claims regarding exposure to toxic substances. With the experience of being a former General Counsel of the EPA, Ms. Corash is well versed, and has been for many years, in the evolving area of clean technology, renewable resources and climate change. She advises clients on the many issues now facing corporations as they face the challenges of new technologies, infrastructures, markets and regulatory regimes.

Contact information: mcorash@mofo.com or (415) 268-7124



[1] Adopted in 1975, EPCA provides for the establishment of national corporate average fuel economy (“CAFÉ”) standards that apply to all passenger automobiles and light duty trucks.

[2] Coincidentally, at the same time, the European Commission adopted a proposal for legislation to dramatically reduce the average carbon dioxide (“CO2”) emissions of new passenger cars by 2012. If adopted by the European Parliament, the proposal requires, by 2012, a fleet average of 130 grams of CO2 emissions per kilometer, with another 10 grams per kilometer reduction from alternative sources such as biofuels and more efficient air-conditioning. Considering Europe’s cars currently emit on average 160 grams of CO2 per kilometer, this represents an almost twenty percent reduction of CO2 emissions in four years. 

California v. U.S. EPA--Fighting for the Last Word on Mobile Source Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Posted on January 8, 2008 by Michèle Corash

Following the United States Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, deciding that greenhouse gases are a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, a federal-state skirmish has emerged in the climate change arena over mobile source emissions. The United States Government estimates that the transportation sector accounts for approximately one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Over the past months, the question of how to reduce those emissions has evolved into a dramatic political and legal battle, pitting California’s Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger against U.S. President George Bush. 

The stage for this tussle was set long ago when Congress adopted the federal Clean Air Act and included in the law a special provision for California. Specifically, Section 209(a) of the Clean Air Act prohibits individual states from adopting emission standards for new motor vehicles. However, in recognition of California’s unique smog problems, a subsection (b) was added to enable California to adopt standards more stringent than federal standards so long as it applies for and obtains a waiver from the U.S. EPA. As one court recently explained, under Section 209(b), “Congress has essentially designated California as a proving ground for innovation in emission control regulations.” Other states are then free to adopt California’s standards pursuant to Section 177 of the Clean Air Act, so long as the standards are adopted at least two years before the model year that they regulate. 

In 2002, California invoked its unique Clean Air Act authority to address greenhouse gas emissions from mobile sources. In particular, the State passed AB 1493 requiring the California Air Resources Board to develop and adopt regulations for the greenhouse gas emissions of passenger automobiles and light duty trucks. In September of 2004, the Air Resources Board adopted standards that apply to such vehicles beginning with model year 2009. As required by the Clean Air Act, California then requested a waiver from the U.S. EPA so that the standards could enter into force. While the waiver request was pending, no less than sixteen other states lined up to adopt California’s standards—for all practical purposes, the California standards were poised to become the de facto national standard.  

Automobile manufacturers challenged those regulations in federal courts in both Vermont and California, arguing that the state automobile emission standards for greenhouse gases constituted fuel efficiency standards, and that fuel efficiency standards are exclusively regulated by the federal government under the Environmental Policy and Conservation Act (“EPCA”).[1] Both courts rejected the manufacturers’ challenges, deciding that federal law did not preempt California’s ability to affect fuel economy through the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, so long as the U.S. EPA granted a waiver under the Clean Air Act—the stage was set for a showdown between California and the U.S. EPA.

The U.S. EPA played its hand slowly. During the summer of 2007, the U.S. EPA held hearings on California’s waiver request. Perhaps foreshadowing its upcoming decision on the request, the U.S. EPA then announced in the fall that it would begin its own “Rulemaking To Address Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Motor Vehicles,” planning for the adoption of federal regulations by October 2008. Finally, the shot was fired on December 19, 2007, when Stephen Johnson, the U.S. EPA Administrator, held a press conference announcing his agency would not grant a waiver to California’s regulation. At the same time, President Bush signed a new energy bill, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, requiring a fleet average of thirty-five miles per gallon by 2020 and an annual production of thirty-six billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2022.[2] In making the announcement, Johnson specifically cited Bush’s recent signing of the bill and said, “The Bush administration is moving forward with a clear national solution, not a confusing patchwork of state rules. I believe this is a better approach than if individual states were to act alone.”

Retaliation came swiftly. Little more than two weeks after Johnson’s announcement, California, along with 15 other states and five environmental groups, petitioned the Ninth Circuit on January 2, 2008, for review of the waiver denial.  In the lawsuit, California will need to make the case that its regulation under Section 209 was necessary to “meet compelling and extraordinary conditions.”  As a coastal state with limited fresh water resources, the effect of climate change on California may indeed be severe, involving rising sea levels, a reduction in the Sierra snow pack, and higher temperatures that would exacerbate the state’s ozone nonattainment problem, which is already the worst in the nation. A recent Stanford University study added fodder to this argument when it found Californians’ health will be disproportionately affected by greenhouse gas emissions, because the state is home to six of the most polluted cities in the United States. California will also need to make the case under section 209, that its standards “will be, in the aggregate, at least as protective of public health and welfare as applicable Federal standards.” To that end, the California Air Resources Board released a January 2, 2008, assessment that concludes the federal law, even when fully implemented, will not be as effective as California’s standards at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from new vehicles. Even if California is successful, California’s regulation will have to be modified as it was to apply to 2009 model cars—models that will shortly be coming to market. 

The EPA’s first legal maneuver in response to California’s petition may be to request a transfer from the Ninth Circuit to the more agency-friendly D.C. Circuit. Most challenges of EPA regulations must be filed in the D.C. Circuit—the relevant jurisdictional trigger being whether the action has “nationwide scope or effect.”  While the issue of the waiver makes its way through the courts, the U.S. EPA’s rulemaking will also go forward. To meet its goal of final action by October 2008, the U.S. EPA will have to move quickly, with the public comment period coming by summer 2008 at the latest. 

As these battles are fought, looming on the horizon is a general election in November, and a new federal administration beginning in January of 2009. If the U.S. EPA adopts regulations in October 2008 that do not go as far as the California standards, yet another legal challenge seems almost inevitable, if for no other reason than to stall any final rule until the administration changeover. When the dust does settle, presumably in 2009, the road to mobile source emission reductions will finally be paved.

Michèle Corash is a partner in the international law firm of Morrison & Foerster LLP and a member of the firm’s environmental law practice group. She served as General Counsel of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from 1979 to 1982 and previously as Deputy General Counsel for the U.S. Department of Energy and Special Assistant to the Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission. Ms. Corash has consistently been listed in American Lawyer’s Corporate Counsel among the “Best Lawyers in America for Environmental Law” and in numerous other publications as being at the top of her field. She represents companies on a broad range of state, national and international environmental issues and claims regarding exposure to toxic substances. With the experience of being a former General Counsel of the EPA, Ms. Corash is well versed, and has been for many years, in the evolving area of clean technology, renewable resources and climate change. She advises clients on the many issues now facing corporations as they face the challenges of new technologies, infrastructures, markets and regulatory regimes.

Contact information: mcorash@mofo.com or (415) 268-7124



[1] Adopted in 1975, EPCA provides for the establishment of national corporate average fuel economy (“CAFÉ”) standards that apply to all passenger automobiles and light duty trucks.

[2] Coincidentally, at the same time, the European Commission adopted a proposal for legislation to dramatically reduce the average carbon dioxide (“CO2”) emissions of new passenger cars by 2012. If adopted by the European Parliament, the proposal requires, by 2012, a fleet average of 130 grams of CO2 emissions per kilometer, with another 10 grams per kilometer reduction from alternative sources such as biofuels and more efficient air-conditioning. Considering Europe’s cars currently emit on average 160 grams of CO2 per kilometer, this represents an almost twenty percent reduction of CO2 emissions in four years.