On October 15, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari in Coalition for Responsible Regulation v. EPA (2012) 684 F.3d 102. It is regarded as the most important federal case involving greenhouse gas emissions after its predecessor, Massachusetts v. EPA (2007) 549 U.S. 497.
The case below involved a number of the U.S. EPA’s Clean Air Act rules regulating greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources, such as large industrial plants, refineries, and factories. A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit unanimously upheld the EPA’s rules in June 2012. Specifically, the court upheld the EPA’s endangerment finding for greenhouse gases and the agency’s decision that the endangerment finding made greenhouse gases an “air pollutant” for purposes of the Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) program. The court also held that plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge how the rule is phased in.
Various interest groups and states submitted a total of nine petitions for certiorari, seeking to overturn the D.C. Circuit’s decision. The Supreme Court accepted six of these petitions.
The Court will consider the narrow issue of whether the EPA acted within its authority in determining that its regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from new motor vehicles triggered permitting requirements for stationary sources under the Clean Air Act. This means that the Court will leave some of the lower court’s findings undisturbed, including the endangerment finding and the “tailpipe rule,” which sets emissions standards for automobiles.
The challenged Clean Air Act provisions are the “timing” and “tailoring” rules, which together exempt small stationary sources from the greenhouse gas regulations that would otherwise apply. As enacted, the Act regulates every “source” of greenhouse gases emitting 100 tons of a single pollutant, including homes, apartment buildings, and small businesses. The EPA determined that regulating every source at that emission level would be both impractical and politically unpopular, so it created the tailoring rule to confine application of the Act to new sources emitting at least 100,000 tons of greenhouse gases per year and modifications of existing sources that increase emissions by 75,000 tons.
The industries and states challenging the tailoring rule argue that the rule is unlawful, since it relieves sources emitting between 100 and 100,000 tons from regulation when the statute clearly says those sources must be regulated. They also argue that the PSD provisions of the Act under which the EPA is regulating the larger emitters do not apply to greenhouse gases. The challengers believe the PSD provisions only apply to those pollutants on the National Ambient Air Quality Standards’ criteria pollutants list, which does not include greenhouse gases.
The criteria pollutant list is selective; it contains only six air pollutants which have a demonstrable effect on human health, such as lead and carbon monoxide. However, after the Court held that greenhouse gases are air pollutants under the Clean Air Act in the 2007 case Massachusetts v. EPA, the EPA found six greenhouse gases that must be regulated due to their threat to public health and welfare. Thus, though greenhouse gases are not technically listed as a criteria air pollutant, they have been found to be dangerous to human health. In fact, the PSD already applies to non-criteria pollutants, albeit more obscure ones like sulfuric acid mist. Plus, the EPA’s interpretation of its own statutes will be accorded significant deference under Chevron, which makes the challengers’ position an uphill battle.
The lower court never reached the substance of the challengers’ arguments because it found that they did not have standing, reasoning that regulating larger businesses while exempting smaller ones did not injure the larger businesses. In fact, the Court found that the tailoring rule could even help states like Texas – one of the states challenging the rule – because it would lessen the state’s burden in administering the Clean Air Act permitting program.
A ruling on the statutory interpretation issues could help to clear some of the ambiguities plaguing the Clean Air Act, which has not been amended since 1990. With the increasing national and international focus on climate change, environmentalists and industry alike would benefit from more guidance on how the Act applies to greenhouse gases. The Court will hear arguments in early 2014 and is anticipated to issue a ruling by July.