Combating Climate Change with the Clean Air Act’s International Air Pollution Provision

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As the key staffing decisions and priority policy agendas for President-elect Joseph R. Biden begin to take shape, the questions of when and how the administration will act on his campaign’s climate plan are front and center. Deservedly so. The scale and scope of the climate crisis calls for immediate and comprehensive nationwide efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There is no question that new federal legislation would be the best option. But with Georgia’s two Senate seats still undecided and the political implications of the November election still being parsed out, the prospect for federal legislation remains highly uncertain. What’s more, even assuming Congress does enact new climate legislation, it may not go far enough in reducing GHGs to be consistent with science-based climate targets, or to meet the nation’s international climate commitments. From January 20 onward, the Biden administration will need to think through and set in motion regulations that rely on existing statutes to achieve the deep emission reductions required to avoid increasingly dangerous, highly unpredictable climate scenarios.

Combating Climate Change with Section 115 of the Clean Air Act: Law and Policy Rationales provides a roadmap for an essential component of such a plan:  the Environmental Protection Agency’s international air pollution authority. This new book, which I edited, is the culmination of a decade of collaboration by scholars and lawyers at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, the Emmett Institute at UCLA, and the Institute for Policy Integrity at NYU, with major contributions from other outstanding legal scholars, experienced lawyers from the Environmental Protection Agency and the State Department, leading state regulators, and veterans of congressional climate battles. Its chapters lay out how the Clean Air Act’s international air pollution provision -- Section 115 -- provides a logical, common-sense basis for a federal climate policy that (a) allows the executive branch to synchronize the nation’s domestic emission reduction efforts with its international climate commitments; (b) authorizes the use of a broad range of regulatory approaches, including market-based mechanisms; (c) respects cooperative federalism by giving EPA the responsibility to set emission reduction targets and states the authority to decide how to achieve them; and (d) is administratively simple. Whatever might come from Congress in the next year or two, and whatever else the Biden administration’s environmental, energy and natural resources agencies might do, EPA’s international authority can fill the gap between the emission reductions other federal, state and local programs can achieve and the level of cuts required to meet the nation’s climate goals. 

Though it has only been invoked once, and never implemented, the criteria for using the international air pollution provision are relatively straightforward. Section 115 is triggered when EPA both finds that emissions in the United States contribute to air pollution that endangers public health or welfare in another country (the “endangerment finding”) and determines that the other country provides “essentially the same rights with respect to the prevention or control of air pollution occurring in that country as is given that country” by Section 115 (the “reciprocity determination”). In the case of climate change, both of these prerequisites are readily met: GHGs in the U.S. contribute to climate change, which endangers public health and welfare in other countries just as much if not more than it does here in the U.S. And the UNFCCC, the Paris Agreement, and potentially new, additional agreements ensure both that the U.S. can participate in other countries’ planning and that there is a mutual, or “reciprocal,” substantive commitment to address the climate crisis.   

Once triggered, Section 115 operates through state implementation plans (SIPs), the state air pollution control programs that are the heart of the Clean Air Act’s cooperative federalism model for achieving the nation’s air pollution control goals. Under Section 115, EPA’s role is to require the states to revise their SIPs to the extent they are “inadequate to prevent or eliminate the endangerment.” As explored in detail in the book, EPA can use the provision to set GHG emission reduction targets for the states, and the states can work together with EPA and other states to build upon their existing initiatives to achieve these emission reductions in a cost-effective manner. If a state refuses to revise its SIP, EPA can promulgate a federal implementation plan (FIP) for the state, authority that EPA has exercised in other contexts.

Some of this may sound familiar to some of you. Combating Climate Change with Section 115 of the Clean Air Act: Law and Policy Rationales reflects a  significant enhancement of a 2016 article, which many of the book’s authors contributed to, and which received a good deal of attention, that examined how EPA’s international air pollution authority could help achieve the country’s climate change goals at that time. The book’s updated analysis makes important adjustments to the thinking in that article to reflect all that has happened in the intervening years – including developments in the UNFCCC, the U.S. Supreme Court, and U.S. politics. The book’s chapters dive deeper into the key implementation issues that would face EPA and the states, and they explore ways to address the various legal and policy issues that would arise – including critical questions of judicial review in an evolving doctrinal landscape marked by uncertainty around the future of Chevron deference and the shadow cast by the “major questions” doctrine. But the book’s chapters present solid answers to these questions, and demonstrate that the statutory language is robust enough to empower EPA and the states to reduce U.S. emissions in line with our international commitments, while providing sufficient guardrails to constrain and direct agency discretion.

The Clean Air Act’s international air pollution provision is not the only existing authority the Biden administration can, should, or will rely on to address climate change. But it is a powerful one. And while the idea of relying on the provision may seem novel to some, it is not new. Former EPA General Counsel Roger Martella wrote one of the first articles advocating the approach back in 2009. (Another former EPA GC, and ACOEL fellow, Jon Cannon, is one of the contributors to the book.) The provision provides EPA and the states with the authority, and the flexibility, to address GHG emissions in an efficient and equitable manner. It should be on the table when, early in 2021, the U.S. rejoins the Paris Agreement, and the federal government recommits to ambitious climate action.   

To read a summary of the book, go here.

To purchase the book, go here. You may use the discount code MBRG35 for a 35% discount on hard cover copies. The discount code does not apply to e-books, which are also available, and a lot less expensive.

For additional materials on the International Air Pollution provision, go to the Sabin Center’s Section 115 resources page, here.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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