My colleague, Daniel Lee, followed oral argument yesterday in the U.S. Supreme Court’s consideration of federal greenhouse gas (GHG) regulation in Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA, and provides this analysis:
During oral argument for Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA this Monday, the Supreme Court conflicted over a number of issues including the application of Chevron deference, the scope of the Court’s holding in Massachusetts v. EPA, and the nature of the Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) program under the Clean Air Act (CAA). At the broadest level, the Court will decide whether the EPA’s PSD program regulating emissions from stationary sources will apply to greenhouse gas emissions. Much of the Justices’ questioning focused on whether EPA’s interpretation, that the PSD statute required regulation of GHGs, was reasonable and would receive Chevron deference. Pointing out that the parties had advanced four separate interpretations of the statute, Justice Sotomayor suggested the statute’s “quintessential ambiguity” implicated Chevron. Justice Kagan went further to suggest that EPA’s interpretation was “most reasonable” in light of its longstanding adherence to the position and that there is “nothing that gets more deference than this Agency with respect to this complicated a statute.”
To overcome the Chevron hurdle, petitioners emphasized the incongruence between the local focus of the PSD program and the broader, global effects of GHGs. However, Justice Ginsburg countered that GHGs had “severe effects at the local level” according to EPA’s endangerment finding. In contrast, Justice Alito emphasized that GHGs are nevertheless distinguishable from other substances regulated under the PSD program because of the large quantity of GHGs emitted.
Less aggressive was the questioning from Justice Kennedy, whose vote has often been the deciding factor for the Court. Justice Kennedy reaffirmed that the Court must abide by Massachusetts v. EPA, but nevertheless indicated that he “couldn’t find a single precedent that strongly supports” the EPA’s position. Yet he also opined that Brown & Williamson, a case relied on by the industry petitioners, was also distinguishable.
If EPA’s interpretation is upheld, PSD and Title V permitting programs will continue to apply broadly to industrial emitters of GHGs. If EPA’s interpretation is not upheld EPA could continue to regulate GHGs through the New Source Performance Standards program but would presumably need to withdraw the PSD and Title V permits issued for GHGs and many sources currently undergoing PSD and/or Title V permitting would see their permitting burdens greatly reduced. Additionally, Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA will likely add further contour to the sprawling case law on Chevron deference in the context of environmental regulation.
See our previous report on the Supreme Court’s grant of certiorari in Utility Air Regulatory Group and its related cases for additional background on the controversy’s road to the Supreme Court.