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D.C. Circuit Court Denies Request For Rehearing of Decision Upholding EPA GHG Emission Regulations

Sigel_Gabrielle_COLORBy Gabrielle Sigel

 

On December 20, 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit voted to deny rehearing of a June 26, 2012 panel decision of that court, which had upheld a series of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ("EPA") Clean Air Act regulations for control of greenhouse gas ("GHG") emissions from mobile and stationary sources. Coalition for Responsible Regulation v. EPA, No. 09-1322, U.S. Ct. App. D.C. Cir., on petition for rehearing en banc (12/20/2012). In a 6-2 decision, with two judges writing dissents, the D.C. Circuit court denied petitioners' request for rehearing. The statements of three D.C. Circuit judges supporting the panel's original decision and of the two judges who disagreed and voted to grant the rehearing provide a preview of the parties' arguments in opposition to and in favor of an appeal being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, particularly with respect to EPA's permitting program for stationary sources.

In June 2012, a panel of the D.C. Circuit court had approved EPA's Clean Air Act ("CAA") GHG regulations. Coalition for Responsible Regulation v. EPA, No. 09-1322, U.S. Ct. App. D.C. Cir. (6/26/12). The case was before the court after several States, led by Virginia and Texas, and industry groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, had filed petitions with the appellate court in response to EPA's series of GHG regulations. Those regulations included EPA's finding that GHG emissions constitute a danger to public health and environment, regulation of emissions from mobile sources, and requiring permits for GHG emissions from stationary sources, limited to the largest sources of GHGs. The D.C. Circuit court panel of three judges upheld all of EPA's regulations in a unanimous per curiam decision. (Id.) (A more detailed explanation of the panel's decision can be found at the Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog entry, "Federal Appellate Court Gives U.S. EPA Greenhouse Gas Regulatory Victory," June 27, 2012.)

In response to the loss before the panel, several of the petitioners filed petitions with the D.C. Circuit court for rehearing en banc, i.e.,for a review of the case by all eight of the judges sitting on the D.C. Circuit court. Two judges voted to grant the en banc petitions and, in their statements supporting their dissent, they focused on EPA's regulation of stationary sources. The contested EPA regulations subjected GHG stationary source emissions to permitting under the CAA's Prevention of Significant Deterioration ("PSD") program for emission sources located in attainment areas. "Attainment" under the CAA applies to facilities that operate in areas of the U.S. whose ambient air conditions meet National Ambient Air Quality Standards ("NAAQS") for six regulated air pollutants. Even though GHGs are not a NAAQS-regulated pollutant, EPA interpreted the CAA requirements such that the PSD program applied to GHG emissions. Specifically, EPA interpreted the CAA's statutory trigger for PSD permitting - emission of "any regulated pollutant" - to apply to GHGs, not just NAAQS-regulated pollutants. Because the PSD program is triggered by emission levels that are relatively very low for GHG emissions (albeit relatively high when applied to emissions of NAAQS pollutants), EPA issued its Tailoring Rule, which modifies the CAA's statutory triggers for sources of GHG emissions. Under the Tailoring Rule, PSD requirements initially only apply to sources emitting GHGs of at least 75,000 or 100,000 tons per year ("tpy"), rather than the statutory levels of 100/250 tpy that are applied to the NAAQS pollutants. EPA justified its Tailoring Rule on three grounds: (1) implementing the CAA's tpy triggers for GHGs would lead to "absurd results" not intended by Congress; (2) the administrative burden that would otherwise be imposed; and (3) the agency's authority to implement statutory requirements over time. Rather than addressing the substance of EPA's bases for the Tailoring Rule, the Circuit Court held that neither industry nor State petitioners had standing to address the Tailoring Rule. Basically, the D.C. Circuit panel found that petitioners failed to show that the Tailoring Rule caused "injury in fact" or that vacating the rule would redress the injury.

The dissenting judges took issue primarily with the substance of EPA's decision to apply the PSD program to GHG emissions. In her statement dissenting from the denial of rehearing, Judge Brown began by lamenting the Supreme Court's 2007 decision, Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497 (2007), in which the Court decided that the CAA's regulation of pollutants from automobiles included GHGs, if EPA determined that such emissions endangered public health. Specifically, she "engages Massachusetts's interpretive shortcomings in the hope that either Court or Congress will restore order to the CAA." (Brown dissent, slip op. 2.) Judge Brown also explored her view that, even after Massachusetts, EPA is not entitled to apply the PSD program to GHG emissions. She notes that EPA itself recognized and promoted the "absurdity" of applying the CAA as written to GHG emissions, and finds that EPA does not have the power to "preempt legislative prerogatives", which repeatedly failed to regulate GHGs. (Id., 13.) She pronounced that "[t]he real absurdity is that this unprecedented expansion of regulatory control, this epic overreach, may very well do more damage to the well being of Americans than GHGs could ever do." (Id.) Judge Brown also relied on Supreme Court precedent under the "major questions" doctrine, Food & Drug Admin. v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., 529 U.S. 120 (2000), to urge that administrative agencies should not receive deference "on questions of great significance more properly resolved by the legislature." (Id., 14.) Finally, Judge Brown took issue with the panel's decision on standing, finding that petitioners' standing in this case was no more speculative than the petitioners' standing that the Supreme Court recognized as sufficient in Massachusetts. Judge Brown concluded, "In denying rehearing en banc, this Court has read Massachusetts to its illogical ends and it is American industry that will have to pay. That this Court did so is unsurprising, but certainly not fated." (Id., 22-23.)

Judge Kavanaugh, in his dissent, noted that "[t]his case is plainly one of exceptional importance…[with] massive real-world consequences." (Kavanaugh dissent, slip op. 1.) He reviewed the CAA's language and found that the CAA's PSD language should more logically and appropriately be interpreted to mean that it applied only to NAAQS pollutants and not to GHGs. He noted that this more "straightforward" interpretation avoided the "absurdities" that lead to EPA's Tailoring Rule. (Id., 6, 17.) Judge Kavanaugh concluded by finding that EPA's regulation of GHGs under the PSD program put "the bedrock underpinning of our system of separation of powers…at stake." (Id., 18.) Because "EPA went well beyond what Congress authorized for the [PSD] statute", it is the court's duty to enforce the statutory boundaries and require EPA to read the CAA in a manner that avoids its application to GHGs from stationary sources. (Id., 21.)

In response to the dissents, three Circuit court judges (Sentelle, Tatel, and Rogers) issued a statement in support of the denial of the en banc petition. They rejected Judge Brown's view that Massachusetts did not envision the far-reaching consequences leading to control of GHG emissions from stationary sources. They also disagreed with Judge Kavanaugh's limit of the PSD program to NAAQS pollutants, stating that "the panel's interpretation of the statute is the only plausible one." (Order denying pet. for rehrg., slip op. 3.) They agreed, however, with Judge Kavanaugh that separation of powers is an important issue, but found that "Congress spoke clearly, EPA fulfilled its statutory responsibilities, and the panel, playing its limited role, gave effect to the statute's plain meaning." (Id., 4.)

All of the judges issuing opinions in response to the petitions for en banc rehearing were speaking to the Supreme Court, which will decide whether to grant the expected petition for permission to appeal to that Court. The petition for writ of certiorari before the Supreme Court must be filed within 90 days after entry of judgment in the Circuit court.