Grant of Certiorari in Greenhouse Gas Regulation Litigation: Limited But Important

Posted on October 30, 2013 by David Buente

Of the 21 separate questions presented in the 9 petitions for writ of certiorari filed in the U.S. Supreme Court in Utility Air Regulatory Group et al. v. Environmental Protection Agency et al., challenging nearly every aspect of the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent greenhouse gas regulations—from the initial “endangerment” finding to the restriction on motor vehicle emissions to the stationary-source permitting requirements—the Court granted review of only a single issue:  “[w]hether [EPA’s] regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from new motor vehicles triggered permitting requirements under the Clean Air Act for stationary sources that emit greenhouse gases.”  Several commentators have interpreted this decision (reported in a prior post by Theodore Garrett) as an implicit affirmation of EPA’s regulatory regime, insofar as the Court chose not to address some of the broader challenges to the agency’s basic authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.  But, whatever implications might be drawn from the Court’s decision not to grant review of certain issues, far more telling is the Court’s deliberate rewriting of the question presented, narrowly tailored to address the validity of the stationary-source permitting regulations.

Those regulations rest on an exceedingly questionable interpretation of the Clean Air Act.  The stationary-source provisions of the Act require any industrial facility that emits an “air pollutant” in “major” amounts—defined by the statute as 250 or more tons of the pollutant per year—to obtain pre-construction and operating permits from the local permitting authority.  42 U.S.C. § 7475.  EPA acknowledges that it would be “absurd” to apply these provisions by their terms to sources of greenhouse gas emissions, since nearly every business in the country (including even small commercial enterprises and residential facilities) emit greenhouse gases at more than 250 tons per year, and the agency can offer no reason why the statute should not be interpreted instead to apply only to the large industrial facilities that emit “major” amounts of a pollutant otherwise subject to regulation under the permitting provisions—i.e., one of the so-called “criteria pollutants” for which a national ambient air quality standard has been issued.  Nevertheless, EPA has interpreted the statute to apply to sources of greenhouse gas emissions and, to address the acknowledged “absurd results” created thereby, has decided that for these purposes the threshold for a “major” emissions source should be increased from 250 tons per year—as stated in the statute—by 400-fold, to 100,000 tons per year.  The agency has, in other words, literally rewritten the express terms of the statute in order to justify its preferred interpretation.

The dissenting judges in the D.C. Circuit severely criticized the result.  That is most likely the reason the Supreme Court granted review of the case, to correct the agency’s  interpretation of the Act and ensure that neither EPA nor other agencies attempt to redo legislative power in this way in the future.  Whether or not the limited nature of the certiorari grant can be viewed as an approval of EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases from mobile sources, it almost certainly reflects suspicion—if not disapproval—of the agency’s stationary-source regulations.  The definitive answer should come by June 2014, when the Court is expected to rule. 



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