D.C. Circuit Upholds EPA’s Decision Not to Regulate Methane Emissions from Coal Mines
On May 13, 2014, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) denial of WildEarth Guardians’ (WildEarth) petition to add coal mines to the regulated list of stationary source categories under 42 U.S.C. § 7411(b)(1)(A). WildEarth had previously petitioned EPA in 2010 to regulate methane emissions from coal mines by promulgating new source performance standards under the federal Clean Air Act (CAA). EPA denied the petition on the grounds that its resources were too limited. The Agency argued that Congress had granted EPA authority to prioritize regulatory actions, and EPA had chosen to first focus its regulatory actions on the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, power plants, before moving to smaller sources of emissions, such as coal mines. The court held that the administrative record detailing EPA’s denial of the original petition “easily passed muster under the ‘extremely limited’ and ‘highly deferential’ standard” that applied.
Section 111(b) provides EPA with the authority to regulate the emission of air pollutants from new and modified stationary sources. The CAA states that EPA Administrator shall add a category of stationary sources to the list of regulated sources under section 111(b) if, “in his judgment [the source] causes, or contributes significantly to, air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.” WildEarth argued that EPA needed to regulate coal mines under section 111(b) because they accounted for 10.5% of the total methane emissions in the United States. EPA explicitly stated that the Agency did not base its denial of WildEarth’s petition on the grounds that coal mines did not cause or significantly contribute to air pollution that may reasonably be anticipated to endanger the public health or welfare. Rather, EPA felt that resource limitations and competing court-ordered rule makings prevented the Agency from acting at this time on a category of sources that only accounted for 1% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.
The plaintiffs faced an uphill battle from the beginning. WildEarth argued that EPA’s justification for rejecting its petition to regulate methane emissions was impermissible under the Clean Air Act and the Supreme Court’s 2007 ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA. In that decision, the Court wrote that EPA’s response to a petition “must conform to the authorizing statute.” WildEarth interpreted that language to mean the Agency must make a substantive response to a petition, technically determining whether coal mine methane emissions endangered public health or welfare, which would in turn trigger a duty to further regulate those emissions. Petitioners wrote that EPA could only cite resource constraints, but that the Agency had to make a substantive response to the group’s rulemaking petition.
EPA responded that its denial of WildEarth’s petition was consistent with the Clean Air Act. The law, the Agency claimed, directs EPA to revise its list of industrial source categories subject to regulation “from time to time.” EPA argued that this statutory language grants the Agency discretion to decide when to act.
The court’s decision focuses on the deference owed to EPA. The D.C. Circuit distinguished this case form Massachusetts v. EPA on the grounds that EPA’s denial only stated that the Agency was not prepared to make a decision to regulate methane emissions from coal mines at this time because EPA has chosen to concentrate its greenhouse gas reduction efforts in other areas. Unlike Massachusetts v. EPA, EPA had not claimed that it lacked the authority to regulate methane emissions from this source category or that the effects of such emissions from coal mines did not meet the standard for regulation under 111(b). The court pointed to EPA’s response that the Agency believed that, while operating under a reduced budget, it could achieve greater greenhouse gas emission reductions by focusing on other sources as a valid basis for EPA’s resource constraints defense to the petition.
EPA left open the possibility that it might regulate methane emissions from coal mines at some point in the future. For now, the D.C. Circuit’s willingness to accept EPA’s resource constraints argument provides a cautionary tale for environmental groups attempting to force EPA to expand its regulation of greenhouse gas emissions into other sectors before the Agency is ready.
Posted by Matthew Dobbins
at 5/14/2014 3:39 PM.