Tag: clean air act

There’s More than Just Climate: People Need Protection Against Air Toxics, Too

By Seth Johnson — November 13 at 10:39 a.m.

file0001225592472(1)Seth Johnson is a Senior Associate Attorney with Earthjustice and a graduate of Harvard Law School, where he served as Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Environmental Law Review.

Climate change is the environmental issue of the day and it, deservedly, is the focus of great attention. But many domestic air pollution issues remain, and millions of Americans await long-overdue protections against toxic and cancer-causing air pollutants like dioxins, mercury, cadmium, chromium, lead and benzene. These issues are often in the shadow of climate change discussions, even though the legal fights over how to regulate these pollutants have been going on for decades and will continue.

One issue that is now the subject of litigation consists of four cases, all relating to how much protection people will receive against hazardous air pollution emitted from industrial boilers—power and heat plants for industrial facilities—and facilities that burn nonhazardous commercial or industrial waste (“waste-burners”). Millions of Americans live, work, pray, and play near these air pollution sources. EPA was required to establish emission standards for the waste-burners in 1994 and for all the industrial boilers by 2000, but it still has not issued lawful versions of these rules.

Per the Clean Air Act (and the D.C. Circuit), a waste-burner is any facility that burns for any reason any nonhazardous commercial or industrial “solid waste,” and EPA defines “solid waste” under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). If a facility is a waste-burner, it must meet very protective “MACT”-level standards, which must reflect what the best-performing sources actually achieve, under Clean Air Act § 129. Such facilities also must have an operating permit that gives the public information about what the facility burns and emits, and makes it easier for the public to hold the facility accountable.

If a facility is not a waste-burner, but is a conventionally fueled industrial boiler, cement plant, or power plant, it may be subject to less restrictive regulation under Clean Air Act § 112. Though some of these facilities are “major sources” under Clean Air Act § 112 and thus also subject to very protective “MACT”-level standards, most are “area sources” that EPA can regulate under the less-protective regime known as “generally available control technology” (GACT). Area sources also do not need to obtain the same operating permits as major sources and waste-burners. So, there is more protection against emissions from waste-burners than there is against emissions from area sources.

The four rules being challenged (1) define nonhazardous solid waste, (2) set standards for waste-burners, (3) set standards for major source industrial boilers, and (4) set standards for area source industrial boilers. The nonhazardous solid waste definition is the key regulatory switching provision for the other three rules.

For defining solid waste under RCRA, everything hinges on the meaning of the word “discarded.” EPA has decided that tires people dispose of at the tire shop, used motor oil people get rid of at the service station, wooden debris from when people tear down houses, and anything that is thrown out—even just household garbage—that eventually gets processed and burned for energy are not discarded and thus are not solid waste. As a result, facilities can burn these materials without being considered a waste-burner and are not subject to protective standards limiting emissions of noxious pollutants.

Environmental groups challenge EPA’s determination of what constitutes solid waste, since “discarded” unambiguously has its plain meaning—abandoned, thrown away, or disposed of—and would encompass many materials that EPA determined are not solid waste. Environmental groups also challenge the other three rules as unlawfully under-protective (some of these arguments are summarized here and here). Unsurprisingly, some industry groups challenge all the rules as forcing them to reduce emissions too much. Briefing in the solid waste definition case has ended; briefing in the three other cases will wrap up in March 2015. Oral arguments have not been scheduled yet, but the same D.C. Circuit panel will hear all the cases.

These cases are important not only because of their ramifications for the health of millions of Americans, but also as pure legal issues. The case concerning the definition of solid waste may clarify some rather confusing D.C. Circuit precedent on RCRA. The other cases come after EPA’s approach to air toxics was repeatedly weighed and found wanting, both for how EPA set standards and for EPA’s efforts to allow “malfunctions” to escape control. EPA adjusted, and the D.C. Circuit has upheld EPA’s standard-setting methodology in many—though not all—of EPA’s more recent air toxics rules.

EPA’s approach to regulating air toxics has thus been changing as EPA, environmental groups, and industry groups press their readings of the Clean Air Act in light of judicial decisions. Thanks in part to the colossus of climate change, that ongoing story is playing out, as the first volume did, in some shadow. But the story is interesting, and extremely important.

Exploring the EPA’s New Power Plant Regulations with Professor Jody Freeman and Professor Richard Lazarus

Jody Freeman, Archibald Cox Professor of Law and founding director of the Environmental Law Program at Harvard Law School.
Jody Freeman, Archibald Cox Professor of Law and founding director of the Environmental Law Program at Harvard Law School.

By Samantha Caravello -— October 14 at 12:11 p.m.

[Update: a video of Professor Freeman and Professor Lazarus’s talks at the Harvard University Center for the Environment is available here.]

In June, EPA released a proposed rule for regulating greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants pursuant to its authority under Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act (“CAA”). The rule sets forth state-specific goals for emissions reductions but gives states flexibility as to how they will meet those targets. Ultimately, the rule will lead to a 30 percent cut in carbon dioxide emissions (from 2005 levels) by 2030. If implemented, the rule will be a critical component of President Obama’s environmental legacy and a chance to show the world that the United States is serious about climate action. Of course, with this great game-changing power comes great controversy – in fact, twelve states have already sued the EPA over these rules, claiming that the agency lacks authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the 111(d) provision.

This challenge and others will play out over the coming months as the comment period continues and a final rule is ultimately issued, but last week Jody Freeman and Richard Lazarus, professors at Harvard Law School and preeminent legal scholars, gave the Harvard University community a preview of the major arguments that will be made. The talk, “The President’s Efforts to Combat Climate Change Without Congress: What is EPA Proposing to Do and is it Legal?” was sponsored by the Harvard University Center for the Environment, and it was given to a standing-room-only crowd.

Richard Lazarus, Howard J. and Katherine W. Aibel Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.
Richard Lazarus, Howard J. and Katherine W. Aibel Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.

Professors Freeman and Lazarus gave an overview of the proposed 111(d) rule and of the Supreme Court’s recent history with the CAA and greenhouse gases. Last term, the Court issued two rulings that were largely favorable to EPA’s ability to exercise its authority to regulate global warming pollution under the CAA: EPA v. EME Homer City Generation and Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA (“UARG”). However, the UARG opinion contained what some consider to be “warning shots” to the EPA, signaling the Court’s potential unwillingness to accept the premise that Congress intended to grant the agency broad authority to regulate power plant greenhouse gas emissions, and by extension the nation’s energy sector, with one provision of the CAA, Section 111. After discussing other, threshold, complications with the new rule, Professors Lazarus and Freeman identified this question of EPA’s authority as likely to be the most significant and controversial issue. Section 111 of the CAA gives EPA the authority to create regulations under which states must submit plans that set standards of performance for power plants, with standard of performance defined as based on the best system of emission reduction. Where the potential for legal challenge comes in is that EPA defined “system” broadly, to include “anything” that reduces emissions from the power plants. This makes sense on its face, as a literal reading of the statute, but its practical implications give EPA extremely expansive authority. What will win these challenges, according to Professors Freeman and Lazarus, is really good lawyering—there are arguments on both sides, but it all comes down to convincing five justices, with Justice Kennedy likely providing the key swing vote.

The additional insights into the Supreme Court’s view of EPA’s regulatory authority imparted by Professors Lazarus and Freeman can’t be accurately captured in a short blog post, but Harvard Environmental Law Review readers will soon have the chance to hear their full thoughts on these issues: Both professors will be authoring pieces in ELR’s Fall 2014 issue as part of a series of essays exploring the implications of the UARG decision, including the potential impact on the legality of EPA’s new 111(d) rule. The story of EPA’s 111(d) regulations is just beginning, and ELR and the Harvard environmental law community are fortunate to have world-class environmental scholars Professors Lazarus and Freeman to offer their insights along the way.

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Bell v. Cheswick Generating Station

By Samantha Caravello

Cite as: Samantha Caravello, Bell v. Cheswick Generating Station, 38 Harv. Envtl. L. Rev. 465 (2014)

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Becoming Good Neighbors After EME Homer Generation, L.P. v. EPA

By Jeremy Feigenbaum

Cite as: Jeremy Feigenbaum, Becoming Good Neighbors After EME Homer Generation, L.P. v. EPA, 38 Harv Envtl. L. Rev. 259 (2014).

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A New Cost of Cost-Benefit Analysis?

LAND_arches_UT_alecharrisBy Gabriel DalyNov. 7, 2013 at 12:10pm

If an agency uses cost-benefit analysis (CBA) to inform its decision-making, what costs and what benefits should it consider? A case currently before the D.C. Circuit, White Stallion Energy Center, LLC v. EPA,[1] raises this issue. White Stallion suggests a tension between the incentives created by Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) review and those created by judicial review, such that an agency seeking to insulate itself from review from within the administration may end up exposing itself to increased risk of losing upon external (judicial) review.

White Stallion concerns one of the most important and expensive rules the EPA has ever promulgated: a regulation under Section 112(n)(1)(A) of the Clean Air Act (CAA) that requires oil- and gas-fired power plants to reduce their emissions of mercury and other hazardous air pollutants. The benefits of the regulation are staggering: monetized benefits of $37 billion to $90 billion, plus non-monetized benefits above and beyond that range.[2] But the costs are also significant – approximately $9.6 billion per year. Among the issues before the court is whether the statute requires EPA to consider these costs, as industry challengers to the rule contend. EPA argues that Section 112(n)(1)(A) – which permits it to promulgate regulations that are “appropriate and necessary” to address hazards to public health posed by oil- and gas-fired power plants – does not require the agency to take costs into account.

Regardless of how the D.C. Circuit resolves that question, the way in which EPA did consider costs raises an interesting issue with broad implications. EPA did tabulate costs and benefits in its rulemaking, not because it believed the CAA required it to do so, but because Executive Order 13,563 requires all agencies (to the extent permitted by law) to adopt regulations “only upon a reasoned determination that [their] benefits justify [their] costs.” EPA’s use of CBA in this context may be seen as an example of what Jennifer Nou has identified as agency self-insulation:[3] that is, an attempt to insulate the agency’s rule against review from within the administration at OIRA.[4] The tension, however, is that, in insulating itself from review from within the administration – by demonstrating very positive CBA scores – EPA may have exposed itself to liability in external review.

Under D.C. Circuit precedent, agency rulemaking will not be invalidated for failure to conduct a CBA if consideration of cost is not required by statute. But if an agency relies on a CBA in making its decision (even if it is not required to conduct a CBA), the agency’s analysis must be reasonable to survive judicial scrutiny.[5] Here, EPA explicitly did not rely on a CBA to make its “appropriate and necessary” finding; so the strength of the CBA will be irrelevant if the court affirms EPA’s legal theory that section 112 does not require consideration of costs. But if the court rejects this theory, EPA might be in real trouble. This is because EPA’s CBA estimated benefits from mercury reductions totaling just $4 million to $6 million. The vast majority of benefits from the regulation come from “co-benefits” due to reductions in particulate matter, PM2.5.[6] EPA’s decision to regulate oil- and coal-fired power plants was based on health effects caused by hazardous air pollutants, under a provision of the CAA specifically focused on hazardous pollutants.[7] PM2.5 is not a hazardous pollutant.[8] Thus, there is an argument that EPA’s consideration of the benefits of PM2.5 reduction was arbitrary and capricious because these benefits are statutorily irrelevant for the purposes of Section 112.[9]

In this case, the tension between intra-administration review and judicial review of an agency’s CBA will likely remain below the surface. EPA quite explicitly declined to rely on its CBA to justify its “appropriate and necessary” determination, and it has a very strong argument that this determination should be upheld under Chevron. But even if EPA is vindicated in the D.C. Circuit, the underlying tension between intra-administration and judicial review is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.

This is because the tension between intra-administrative and judicial review highlights a larger problem: the shortcomings of our current environmental laws. Since the Reagan Administration, cost-benefit analysis has gained an increasingly prominent role in agency decisionmaking, and courts (the D.C. Circuit in particular) are increasingly likely to read cost-benefit balancing into statutes.

But the environmental laws have not been revised to reflect these policy choices.[10] Agencies, left trying to make sense of laws that have not been revised in decades, are left in limbo. To pass muster at OIRA, an agency must justify its decisionmaking in terms of costs and benefits. In a case like this one, where the costs are very significant but the benefits are even greater, EPA has every incentive to insulate its rule with a CBA highlighting those great benefits. But reliance on a CBA of this kind may create a risk that a court will invalidate the rule as arbitrary and capricious.


[1] No. 12-1100 (D.C. Cir.).
[2] 77 Fed. Reg. 9306 tbl.2.
[3] See Jennifer Nou, Agency Self-Insulation Under Presidential Review, 126 Harv. L. Rev. 1755 (2013). Nou suggests a “simple theory”: Under an anti-regulatory president, agencies will submit CBAs of poor quality to increase the costs of review for OIRA, making it less likely that OIRA will reverse the agency. Under a pro-regulatory president, agencies will submit high-quality CBAs to reduce the costs of review for OIRA, making it more likely that OIRA will approve the agency’s rule.  Id. at 1806–07. The agency-OIRA interaction here suggests a complication to Nou’s “simple theory.” The Obama Administration would surely be considered “pro-regulatory,” but EPA might still feel a need to insulate itself because of the sheer magnitude of this rule and its high political saliency.
[4] OIRA is not the only body within the Administration that participates in review, but “OIRA” is often used as convenient shorthand for this review process. See Cass R. Sunstein, The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs: Myths and Realities, 126 Harv. L. Rev. 1838, 1856 (2013).
[5] See Bus. Roundtable v. SEC, 647 F.3d 1144, 1148–49 (D.C. Cir. 2011) (invalidating agency action as arbitrary and capricious because, inter alia, it “inconsistently and opportunistically framed the costs and benefits” of its rule).
[6] 77 Fed. Reg. 9306, tbl.2.
[7] See 77 Fed. Reg. 9306; CAA § 112.
[8] See Clean Air Act § 112, codified as amended at 42 U.S.C. § 7412(b)(1) (listing hazardous pollutants).
[9] See Motor Vehicle Mfrs. Ass’n of U.S., Inc. v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 463 U.S. 29, 42–44 (1983) (holding that an agency acts arbitrarily when it considers statutorily irrelevant factors in its decision-making).
[10] Cf. Richard J. Lazarus, Congressional Descent: The Demise of Deliberative Democracy in Environmental Law, 94 Geo. L. J. 619, 629–32 (2006) (noting the lack of environmental legislation since 1990, with particular focus on the absence of new laws addressing substantive environmental issues, including climate change).

“Fugitive” natural gas emissions on the run from the law

A natural gas power plant in Utah. (Photo credit: D. Jolley, Wikipedia)
A natural gas power plant in Utah. (Photo credit: D. Jolley, Wikipedia)

By Samantha Caravello — Aug. 13, 2013 at 12:52pm

Natural gas is being widely lauded as the “bridge fuel” that will allow the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, kick its addiction to foreign oil, and create jobs to boot. But it’s worth taking a closer look at the impacts of natural gas production before getting comfortable with the idea of it as the panacea for our energy problems. We’ve all heard the horror stories of tap water lighting on fire and farm animals reportedly dying from drinking fracking wastewater, but some concerns go even deeper–what if the entire premise of a natural gas-fueled low-carbon future is simply untrue?

Such fears have come to surface recently, as studies like this one conducted by NOAA and University of Colorado scientists have been able use the chemical signatures of air pollution to identify “fugitive” emissions from oil and natural gas emissions as the culprit behind unhealthily high levels of pollution. (A telling anecdote: oil and gas have been identified as the problem behind ozone levels in western plain areas that rival the smog you’d expect in cities like Los Angeles. And a telling video: infrared cameras capture gas leaks that are invisible to the naked eye.)  And ozone precursors are not the only pollutants leaking–methane, a GHG that is significantly more potent than carbon dioxide and the principal component of natural gas, is also escaping at alarming rates.

Addressing these unreported emissions is critical to responsibly planning our country’s transition to a clean energy future: scientists estimate that if methane leakage from natural gas well sites exceeds 3.2 percent, gas becomes a worse contributor to global warming than coal. Given that studies are now estimating leakage rates of 2.3 percent to 17 percent in some areas, we may have a problem.

But that’s why we have the Clean Air Act, right? Well (as you can probably already surmise), there are some problems with that. There is currently no appropriate regulatory framework for addressing fugitive methane emissions from natural gas production (although EPA has taken steps to address the release of ozone precursors from this sector). Title V of the Clean Air Act (CAA) requires major stationary sources to obtain a permit pre-construction, which specifies the amount of each pollutant the source is allowed to emit, but methane leaks from natural gas production are from smaller sources–individual wells, storage tanks, etc.–that do not meet the requirements to be regulated as major sources.[1]  A potential solution to this problem is aggregating all of the wells, but courts have not taken kindly to the EPA’s attempts to do so, and given our current political climate, it seems unlikely to expect a pro-aggregation ruling in the near future.  EPA does have authority to regulate emissions from oil and gas wells through a different portion of the CAA, the New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) program, and it has taken some action to do so through its ozone rule.  However, EPA has not yet set an NSPS for methane, which would be a massive undertaking.

It’s funny–one would think that losing their product at a rate that may enter double digits would be contrary to good business principles. But natural gas is so plentiful and in such high demand that it seems such logic doesn’t apply here. Hopefully studies like the one discussed above will draw public and government attention and outrage to the issue before it’s too late.


[1] Lowrey, Jessica L. Sewing Up the Regulatory Hole: Preventing Winter Ozone in Utah’s Uintah Basin. 3 Seattle Journal of Envt’l Law 295, 304–305 (2013).

Vol. 39.1 Case Comment: EPA v. EME Homer City Generation, L.P.: Agencies Can Consider Costs in the Face of Statutory Silence by Ryland Li

Changing Climate, Unchanging Act, Improvising Agency, Enabling Court: The Story of Coalition for Responsible Regulation v. EPA

By Laura King

Coalition for Responsible Regulation v. EPA follows from and amplifies the Supreme Court’s decision in Massachusetts v. EPA. Both cases announce the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act — with Massachusetts v. EPA prodding a reticent EPA into regulation of greenhouse gases under the motor vehicle provision of the Act, and Coalition for Responsible Regulation v. EPA affirming both EPA’s obedience to Massachusetts v. EPA and the agency’s new willingness to extend greenhouse gas regulation to stationary sources. The cases are significant because they together stimulated and sustained the first controls on greenhouse gases in the United States, altering a status quo in which greenhouse gas emissions were free — not taxed or regulated or otherwise constrained.

Overall, Coalition for Responsible Regulation v. EPA is a win for the environment. Its effect is to preserve permitting requirements for stationary sources that emit greenhouse gases. It also supports and extends the Supreme Court’s recognition in Massachusetts v. EPA that EPA may regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. However, what the case reveals about the American legal system’s ability to respond to changes in the natural world is sobering. It exposes a system in need of revision: one in which lawmaking, designed to be measured, manages instead to be dawdling, and agencies and courts must summon all of their resources — prognostication, strategy, rhetorical finesse, and luck — to turn outdated statutes toward pressing threats. In this case, in an effort to provide some response to climate change and thus fulfill broader public mandates, both EPA and the D.C. Circuit held statutory language at arm’s length: EPA, by promulgating rules that “tailored” the clearest kind of statutory language — numbers; the court, by calling on standing doctrine to avoid facing — and thus having to overturn — EPA’s fast-and-loose interpretation.

These choices, which were essentially workarounds to avoid the application of straightforward statutory language, together succeeded in preserving greenhouse gas regulation, but not without risk and compromise to environmental positions. Whenever an agency departs from statutory language, it risks reversal. That risk is especially acute when the reviewing court is the D.C. Circuit and the reviewing panel includes David Tatel, who, in his capacity as a judge on the D.C. Circuit, has urged agency officials — if they are to satisfy the court and fulfill their role as responsible public servants — to “(1) [r]ead the statute; (2) read the statute; (3) read the statute!” The D.C. Circuit, for its part, preserved EPA’s workaround by doing a workaround itself, one that shrinks somewhat that cornerstone of environmental litigation: standing doctrine.

Part I of this comment puts Coalition for Responsible Regulation v. EPA in context by reviewing the history of greenhouse gas regulation under the Clean Air Act. Part II profiles the case itself. Parts III and IV use Coalition for
Responsible Regulation v. EPA as a showcase for the nimble, risky choices required of agencies and courts as they use outdated statutory frameworks to respond to new environmental challenges. Thus, Part III shows EPA balancing the danger of taking a red pen to the Act, on the one hand, against the danger of overseeing a sprawling regulatory program, on the other. Part IV shows the D.C. Circuit preserving EPA’s approach to regulation of greenhouse gases at the cost of narrowing the doctrine of standing. The trade, as we will see in the details, is not terrible, but it is a compromise nevertheless.

Cite as: Laura King, Changing Climate, Unchanging Act, Improvising Agency, Enabling Court: The Story of Coalition for Responsible Regulation v. EPA, 37 Harv. Envtl. L. Rev. 267 (2013).

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Federalism in the Air: Is the Clean Air Act’s “My Way or No Highway” Provision Constitutional After NFIB v. Sebelius?

By David Baake

Since the New Deal era, the Supreme Court has interpreted the Spending Clause to permit Congress to use conditional grants to encourage state governments to take action that Congress could not require them to take. In National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, the Supreme Court unexpectedly restricted this power, holding for the first time ever that a conditional grant was unconstitutionally coercive because the amount of money at stake was so large that the states had no real choice but to comply with the attached conditions. This remarkable development in Spending Clause jurisprudence will likely embolden states to challenge the constitutionality of a wide variety of statutes, including Section 179(b)(1) (“Section 179”) of the Clean Air Act, which empowers the Environmental Protection Agency to prohibit, with limited exceptions, the distribution of federal highway money to states that fail to submit adequate State Implementation Plans (SIPs).

In this article, I assess the likelihood that a Spending Clause challenge to Section 179 would succeed, post-Sebelius. In Part I of this Article, I briefly discuss the Sebelius Court’s Spending Clause holding. In Part II, I argue that Section 179 should survive a facial constitutional challenge after Sebelius because, at least where applied to SIP plans for pollutants emitted by mobile sources, the provision can be construed as an attempt to restrict the use of federal funds to projects that advance the general welfare, rather than as an attempt to coerce the states into adopting particular policies. Finally, in Part III, I argue that Section 179 should survive an as-applied constitutional challenge, even if it is applied to SIP plans for pollutants that are not emitted by mobile sources. I argue that the decision to enact a SIP “remains the prerogative of the States not merely in theory but in fact,” because (1) a state that does not wish to promulgate a SIP can petition EPA to promulgate a Federal Implementation Plan (FIP) and thereby halt the sanctions clock; and (2) the amount of money at stake will likely be significantly less than the amount at stake in Sebelius.

Cite as: David Baake, Federalism in the Air: Is the Clean Air Act’s “My Way or No Highway” Provision Constitutional After NFIB v. Sebelius?, 37 Harv. Envtl. L. Rev. F. 1 (2012).