A Daily Caller story claiming the Environmental Protection Agency is “asking for taxpayers to shoulder the burden of up to 230,000 new bureaucrats — at a cost of $21 billion” in order to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act has caused a bit of a stir on the internet (see, e.g., here, here, and here). The critics are correct that the Daily Caller flubbed the initial story. The numbers aren’t new and the EPA isn’t asking for billions of dollars for tens-of-thousands of new hires. But the critics miss the real significance of EPA’s arguments, which is that treating greenhouse gases as “pollutants” under the Clean Air Act, as called for in Massachusetts v. EPA, leads to absurd results.
First, the EPA is not asking for additional resources. What the EPA is asking for is permission to ignore the plain text of the Clean Air Act so as to make the task of regulating greenhouse gases more manageable. The brief at issue is quite clear on this point. The specific figures are an illustration of how it is simply unmanageable to try and regulate such emissions, carbon dioxide in particular, under statutory provisions designed for traditional air pollutants that are emitted by far fewer facilities. The obvious answer to this problem would be to recognize that greenhouse gases are not what Congress had in mind when it told the EPA to regulate “pollutants” under the Clean Air Act, but this option is foreclosed by Massachusetts v. EPA.
Second, the EPA’s claim that regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act would overwhelm the agency’s existing resources and effectively require the hiring of thousands of new employees is not new. I detailed this problem in this Reason essay and HJLPP article. The Obama EPA noted this problem it first proposed the Tailoring Rule in 2009. The Bush EPA (and others) also made this point when arguing that the Act should not be interpreted to apply to greenhouse gases. The Supreme Court was not convinced, however. Indeed, the Massachusetts v. EPA majority briefly considered, and dismissed, the claim that regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act would be impractical.
Third, the real problem with the EPA’s argument is that the agency is asking to ignore the plain text of the Clean Air Act. Specifically, the statutory provisions at issue require regulating facilities with the potential to admit more than 100 or 250 tons per year of regulated pollutants. As the EPA admits, this is impossible for the agency to do without increasing the agency’s total budget more than ten-fold. But the EPA’s solution is just as much of a problem, because what EPA wants to do is replace the Act’s express numerical thresholds with new thresholds of its own invention, based on the EPA’s judgment of what it wants to do when. Yet there is no precedent for administrative revision of statutory text in this fashion — and for good reason. It is one thing to allow an agency to twist potentially ambiguous language so as to avoid an absurd outcome, but quite another to allow an agency to rewrite clear statutory provisions, such as express numerical thresholds. Interpreting “pollutant” to mean only traditional air pollutants does far less violence to the Act’s text and structure than replacing 100 and 250 with numbers the EPA finds more convenient. But the source of this problem is not EPA overreaching or overzealous regulators within the Obama Administration, but the Supreme Court’s decision in Massachusetts v. EPA. If the Court had not misread the statute, we would not have to worry about bloggers and journalists misreading the EPA’s briefs.