Has The Time Come For A Greenhouse Gas NAAQS? Law Students Will Argue The Issue At The 33rd Annual National Environmental Moot Court Competition

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One thing that is clear from the 2020 election: the Senate will remain closely divided, with slim majority control to be determined by the two January Senate runoff races in Georgia. President Elect Biden has announced the most aggressive climate policies of any major party climate candidate ever, but the prospects of achieving these goals through climate legislation are slim as long as Republicans maintain majority control or a bare Democratic majority lacks the votes to eliminate the filibuster (or to vote in strong greenhouse gas emissions controls). The likely continued lack of legislative action on climate is refocusing attention on measures EPA can take under existing Clean Air Act (CAA) authorities.

One potent EPA option in the Clean Air Act toolkit is the authority to add greenhouse gases  (GHGs) to the CAA § 108 list of criteria pollutants. A pollutant is eligible for listing as a criteria pollutant once EPA has found that that the pollutant “may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.” EPA made that finding for GHGs back in December, 2009, when the Obama administration invoked CAA § 202 to regulate new motor vehicle GHG emissions based on the identical endangerment criteria of § 202. Environmental groups 350.org and Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition with EPA, also in December 2009, demanding that EPA list GHGs as a criteria pollutant. But the Obama administration chose not to invoke the NAAQS program for GHGs, fearing the severe regulatory repercussions. Once EPA lists a criteria pollutant, it must propose primary and secondary National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) within twelve months (§§108, 109), and establish final NAAQS within another ninety days (§ 109). Promulgation of final primary NAAQS triggers a three-year compliance deadline for states – after which States risk loss of all federal highway funding and EPA imposition of emissions control measures within the State. And since no State could realistically meet this three-year deadline for a climate protective GHG NAAQS, adoption of the primary NAAQS would be a recipe for draconian federal enforcement measures.

Fearing this regulatory morass, the Obama administration chose to put the U.S. on track to meet its Paris Agreement climate goals through a combination of motor vehicle mileage standards, new source standards, and invocation of CAA § 111(d) authority to require States to develop Best Systems of Emissions Reductions standards for existing power plants through a combination of emissions reductions, renewable energy development, and regional trading systems. EPA called this the “Clean Power Plan.” EPA’s § 111(d) authority for the Clean Power Plan was sufficiently uncertain that the Supreme Court took the unprecedented action of enjoining the implementation and enforcement of the Clean Power Plan before any judicial challenge actually reached the Court. The Trump administration withdrew the Clean Power Plan in favor of much weaker plant-by-plant GHG emissions controls.

Unlike § 111(d) authority, EPA’s authority to list GHGs as a criteria pollutant could not be more textually clear. Indeed, the phrasing of § 108 seems to make a pollutant’s listing mandatory upon a finding of endangerment, directing that EPA “shall” list, as a criteria pollutant, a pollutant that “cause[s] or contribute[s] to air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.” 

A 1976 Second Circuit case, NRDC v Train, held that § 108 imposes a mandatory obligation on EPA to list a pollutant as a criteria pollutant for the CAA Title I NAAQS program once it has made a determination that pollutant may present an endangerment to public health or welfare under the Title II provisions governing motor vehicle emissions. The facts of Train are highly analogous -- EPA made the endangerment finding for lead additives in fuel but had not planned to list lead as a criteria pollutant. Until the court ordered it to do so.

Would a court apply Train to order EPA to list GHGs as a criteria pollutant subject to the NAAQS? What if a hypothetical 2009 petitioner for a GHG NAAQS tried to enforce that theory in court? That’s the question presented in the 33rd running of the 2021 Jeffrey G. Miller National Environmental Law Moot Court Competition, to be conducted by the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University in February and March, 2021. You can view the problem here. Due to COVID restrictions, all rounds up to the Final Round will be conducted virtually this year. This may be a climate blessing in disguise, as running the competition as a virtual event will vastly reduce the travel related carbon emissions associated with the competition. This year’s virtual event may provide a template for the more climate friendly moot court competitions of the future. Licensed attorneys can sign up to judge here (CLE credit is available).

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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