Section 115 of the Clean Air Act - A Useful Tool for Climate Change?

Posted on February 25, 2009 by Angus Macbeth

We are not going to have Congressional action on a regime for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by the time EPA will feel compelled to respond to the Supreme Court's direction in the Massachusetts case and announce whether CO2 emissions endanger public health or welfare. If endangerment is found under Section 109 or 202 of the Act, it appears to lead to ambient air quality standards for CO2 which are then to be met through state implementation plans. By controlling the sources of CO2 within its borders, no state is likely to be able to reduce CO2 to whatever ambient level is established. This is the practical result of the fact that greenhouse gases are a global problem not a local or regional problem. Moreover, the regulation of CO2 under other portions of the Act will likely follow. Perhaps the chaos likely to ensue from following this course will push Congress to pass legislation addressing greenhouse gases. But relying on Congress to do the sensible thing may well be an imprudent course.


Why not try an endangerment finding under Section 115 of the Act instead? It addresses international air pollution which is what GHG emissions are. It calls for a determination of endangerment in a foreign country from sources in the United States. The determination is deemed a finding under Sec.110(a)(2)(H)(ii) of the Act; that finding may be that the relevant SIP is substantially inadequate to comply with the requirements of the Act but need not be that it is inadequate to attain the NAAQS. The affected foreign country must be invited to appear at public hearings on appropriate revision of the SIP and the United States must be given reciprocal rights by the foreign country. Making the determination and establishing reciprocity would take EPA into comparatively unfamiliar territory; starting GHG reduction through state action would follow the path that the US has already started down.

The advantages of this approach that I see are, first, that it deals with the GHG issue as a global, or at least an international, problem rather than as a local or regional one. Second, it gives the states the opportunity to proceed with cap-and-trade regimes which I think will, in some form, be the Congressional solution. Third, it may be able to avoid introducing GHG regulation into other CAA programs such as New Source Review which may be hard to untangle if and when a cap-and-trade regime is established.

The disadvantages are that it is certainly not a perfect fit with a national cap-and-trade or GHG emission tax scheme which I view as the most rational approaches that Congress might enact (though the rationality of a tax scheme is much greater than the likelihood that Congress would embrace it). If you favor command and control regulation and the complexity of New Source Review, this is not the solution for you. There are also risks in what the courts may do in interpreting Section 115 which has rarely been subjected to judicial scrutiny.

In sum, I suggest Section 115 as the best of the ill-fitting options which the Clean Air Act offers for a rational approach to reducing GHG emissions.  

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