EPA proposes illegal rule

by Marlo Lewis on September 2, 2009

in Blog

Yesterday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent a draft proposed rule to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) that would exempt small emitters of carbon dioxide (CO2) from Clean Air Act (CAA) pre-construction permitting requirement, Greenwire reports.

The proposed rule, as described in Greenwire, is blatantly illegal. It is a tacit admission that the Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts v. EPA set the stage for an economic disaster. It is additional evidence that Mass v. EPA was wrongly decided. It confirms CEI’s warning that the Court’s ruling imperils a core constitutional principle — the separation of powers.

In Mass. v. EPA, the Supreme Court, by a narrow 5-4 majority, decided that CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHG) are “air pollutants” within the meaning of CAA, and gave EPA three options: (1) issue a finding that GHG-related “air pollution” “may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare,” (2) issue a finding of no endangerment, or (3) provide a “reasonable explanation” why the agency cannot or will not exercise its discretion to make such a determination.

The Court further held that if EPA makes a finding of endangerment, then it has a duty, under CAA Sec. 202, to develop and adopt GHG emission standards for new motor vehicles.

EPA picked option (1), and last month, it sent OMB a draft proposed rule to establish GHG emission standards for new motor vehicles.

Although the Court majority asserted that an endangerment finding could not lead to “extreme measures” and would only require a cost-constrained adjustment of existing federal fuel-economy standards (see. p. 28 of the decision), in fact the endangerment finding will trigger a chain reaction throughout the CAA — a regulatory cascade potentially exceeding in cost, scope, and intrusiveness the Kyoto Protocol and many other GHG-control schemes Congress has never seen fit to pass.

For starters, establishing GHG emission standards for new motor vehicles will by definition make CO2 a CAA-regulated air pollutant. As such, CO2 would automatically be ”subject to regulation” under the Act’s Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) pre-construction permitting program (CAA Sec. 165). Under the CAA, any firm that plans to build a new “major” stationary source, or modify an existing major source in a way that would significantly increase emissions, must first obtain a PSD permit from EPA or a state environmental agency.

A PSD source is “major” if it is in one of 28 listed categories and has a potential to emit 100 tons per year (TPY) of an air pollutant, or if it is any other type of establishment and has a potential to emit 250 TPY (CAA Sec. 169). 

And there’s the rub. Whereas only large industrial facilities have a potential to emit 250 TPY of air contaminants such as sulfur dioxide or particulate matter, an immense number and variety of entities – office buildings, hotels, big box stores, enclosed malls, small manufacturing firms, even commercial kitchens – have a potential to emit 250 TPY of CO2. A September 2008 report commissioned by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce  estimates that 1.2 million buildings and facilities – most of them currently unregulated under the CAA – actually emit 250 TPY of CO2. All would be vulnerable to new PSD regulation, controls, paperwork, penalties, and litigation.

To obtain a PSD permit, firms must document their compliance with ”best available control technology” (BACT) standards. Even apart from any technology investments needed to comply with BACT, the PSD permitting process is costly and time-consuming.  In a recent year, each permit on average cost $125,120 and 866 burden hours for a source to obtain,  EPA estimates. No small business could operate subject to the PSD administrative burden.

The costs, uncertainties, and delays from applying PSD and BACT to CO2 would have a chilling effect on economic development and construction activity. It would turn the CAA into a gigantic Anti-Stimulus Package in a period of financial crisis and high unemployment. Definitely not something the Obama administration wants on its record in the 2010 election season.

EPA’s July 2008 Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) outlined several administrative remedies to shield small entities from PSD requirements, all of doubtful legality. But if the Greenwire article is accurate, EPA is opting for the most brazenly illegal option of all. It proposes to revise, on its own authority, the PSD threshold from 250 TPY to 25,000 TPY.

Now friends, under the 1984 Supreme Court case of Chevron v. NRDC, EPA has considerable discretionary authority in interpreting the CAA where the statute is “silent or ambiguous with respect to the specific issue.” But there is nothing ambiguous about the number 250. No matter how you squint at the page, 250 is 100 times smaller than the threshold EPA proposes to put in its place.

According to Greenwire, Sierra Club’s David Bookbinder, a counsel for petitioners in Mass. v. EPA, “said the rule would also deflect claims from Republican lawmakers and industry groups that the Obama administration is seeking to regulate small emission sources such as doughnut shops, schools, and nursing homes.” But the Obama administration’s intent is not the issue. The issue is whether EPA, as a matter of law, must apply PSD requirements to doughnut shops, etc. once it starts regulating CO2 under Sec. 202.

Greenwire then quotes Bookbinder: “Putting this rule in place deflates a lot of political rhetoric about regulating CO2.” Well, I hope industry and the GOP are not so naive as to put their trust in an illegal rule. A rule that flouts clear statutory language of the CAA can provide no durable protection from the regulatory cascade that an endangerment finding and EPA adoption of motor vehicle GHG emission standards would unleash.

EPA’s proposed draft rule is a tacit admission of what CEI has said all along: EPA cannot regulate CO2 under the CAA without endangering the U.S. economy — unless EPA plays lawmaker, amends the Act, and violates the separation of powers. When the Supreme Court handed down the Mass. v. EPA decision, it set the stage for a constitutional crisis.

Of course, the bigger constitutional crisis stemming from Mass. v. EPA is that we could end up with an energy suppression regime far more costly than Kyoto or Waxman-Markey, yet without the people’s elected representatives ever voting on it.

For the gory details, see my blog post on MasterResource.Org and my comment (pp. 28-56) on EPA’s proposed endangerment finding.

Rice A. September 4, 2009 at 6:28 pm

Why are they focusing so much on CO2? Co2 is not the only thing that is cause environmental problem.

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