Today the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit will begin two days of oral arguments in a set of challenges to the EPA’s various rules applying the Clean Air Act to greenhouse gas regulations. These rules are the inevitable outgrowth of the Supreme Court’s decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, as I explain here and here. For this reason, most of the industry challenges face tough sledding. For instance, given Mass v. EPA it is difficult to argue that the EPA Administrator was wrong to conclude that the emission of greenhouse gases cause or contribute to air pollution that could be reasonably anticipated to threaten health or welfare. Yet this is one of the claims the industry groups have to make if they are to succeed. Similarly, it will be difficult to challenge the substance of the EPA’s rules governing GHG emissions from motor vehicles.
The more serious challenge to the EPA comes from the challenges to the so-called “tailoring rule” which is the EPA’s effort to apply some of the Clean Air Act’s stationary source provisions to greenhouse gases. The reason this challenge is more serious is because the EPA looked at the statutory requirements of these provisions and realized that implementation of the Act, as written, was impossible. The statutory thresholds that determine what facilities are covered are low enough that, when applied to GHGs, they increase the number of regulated facilities over 140-fold, according to EPA. The administrative costs of trying to process this many permits threatens to grind the EPA’s air office – and state air permitting authorities — to a halt. So, the EPA is trying to rewrite the relevant Clean Air Act provisions by administrative fiat. In the alternative, the EPA has argued, regulatory agencies would have to hire hundreds of thousands of new regulators to handle the permit applications. The problem for EPA is that the relevant emission thresholds are expressly written into the Clean Air Act, and there is no provision giving the EPA authority to modify these limits. So, what the EPA is asking for authority to do, is rewrite the law by administrative fiat — something no federal agency has the authority to do. This puts the D.C. Circuit in a tough place: either let EPA rewrite the law, or enforce a statutory provision that threatens to shut down the agency. Further evidence the Supreme Court was wrong in Mass. v. EPA, particularly when it suggested that applying the Clean Air Act to GHGs would pose no problems.
UPDATE: Here’s an additional preview from Greenwire noting the magnitude of this litigation.