Are Obama’s Climate Pledges Really That “Legally Durable”?

Posted on December 21, 2015 by Richard G. Stoll

In his December 16 ACOEL post Professor Robert Percival concludes that President Obama’s Paris GHG reduction pledges are most likely “legally durable.”  Two of his key points:  (1) EPA’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) – from which the bulk of the Obama pledges are comprised – will likely survive judicial review; and (2) any effort by a new President to undo the CPP would require a lengthy rulemaking process that could be rejected on judicial review.  

The CPP may ultimately survive judicial review, and any attempt by a new President to undermine the CPP may ultimately fail.  But with due respect to Professor Percival, I submit the GHG reduction pledges may be far less “legally durable” than he suggests.  

Judicial Review Prospects.

Professor Percival notes that the Supreme Court has “repeatedly upheld EPA’s authority to regulate GHG emissions.”  But EPA’s authority to regulate GHG emissions is not at issue in the challenges now pending in the D.C. Circuit.  (Consolidated under the lead case West Virginia v. EPA.) 

Rather, the issues relate to how far can EPA go with the words of the Clean Air Act (CAA) to regulate GHG emissions.  I think most would agree that EPA seeks to go pretty far with a few words in CAA 111.   One key issue is whether the words authorizing imposition of “best system” emission limits upon “stationary sources” confer authority to require owners of coal-fired stationary sources to replace their plants with solar and wind energy sources.

In my view, whether the CPP will survive in the D.C. Circuit may well depend upon the composition of the 3-judge panel selected by lot.  The 17 active and senior judges on that Court represent an amazingly wide spectrum of philosophies.  But the cases will probably then go to the Supreme Court – and there, I think EPA will have a pretty tough (but maybe not impossible) time.  Last year, the Court rejected parts of EPA’s GHG regulatory scheme in its UARG opinion.  The Court  expressed strong distaste for EPA regulations with questionable grounding in the CAA’s words  – particularly “where an agency claims to discover in a long-extant statute an unheralded power to regulate a significant portion of the American economy.”

A New President’s Prospects.

Virtually every Republican Presidential candidate has vowed to undo most or all of the CPP (assuming it has not been rejected on judicial review).  I take no position on whether he or she should do this.   But I do believe it could be done fairly quickly and in a manner likely to survive judicial review.

I direct your attention to Nat'l Ass'n of Home Builders v. EPA.  Writing for a unanimous panel in an EPA case, Chief Judge Garland (an Obama appointee – joined by Judge Rodgers, a Clinton appointee) quoted extensively from recent Supreme Court opinions.  In Part II(A) of Judge Garland’s opinion (pages 1036-38) and Part IV (page 1043), the following points come through strong and clear:

a.  A new administration is free to reverse rules issued by a prior administration based entirely upon policy preferences, even where there are no new facts or information, so long as the new administration adequately explains the basis for the reversal;

b.  There is no heightened standard of judicial review when an agency reverses course; and an agency need not convince the court that the reasons for the new policy are better than the reasons for the rejected one.

Thus the “lengthy rulemaking process” envisioned by Professor Percival need not be so lengthy.  A new administration would not need to develop a new factual record – it would merely have to carefully explain in its rulemaking the legal and policy reasons why it was undoing parts or all of the CPP.  There is no reason this could not be accomplished within a year or two, and reductions required under the CPP do not begin kicking in until 2022.



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