Skip to comments.DC Circuit Rejects EPA’s Reliance on Guidance Documents in Lieu of Rulemaking in Clean Air Act Case
Posted on 07/26/2011 7:09:30 AM PDT by EBH
EPA has recently suffered a series of defeats in court cases challenging its reliance on guidance documents that were never adopted as administrative rules. The most recent example has to do with guidance under the Clean Air Act (CAA or Act). In Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) v. EPA, the D.C. Circuit held that EPA violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) by relying on interpretive guidance rather than a regulation to allow states to propose alternatives to statutorily required fees for ozone non-attainment areas. Background
The CAA requires EPA to establish national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) on certain pollutants, including ozone. The Act also includes requirements for non-attainment areas or areas that have not attained the various NAAQS. The CAA imposes deadlines on these non-attainment areas, giving certain areas additional time to come into compliance with the NAAQS. One of these requirements, Section 185 which is specific to ozone requires states to impose fees on all major stationary sources in severe or extreme areas of non-attainment that fail to meet the deadlines.
In 1997, EPA modified the ozone NAAQS, switching from a 1-hour standard, which prohibited average hourly emission concentrations from exceeding a certain level, to a stricter 8-hour standard, which limits emissions concentrations over an eight hour period. EPA formally revoked the 1-hour standard in a 2004 rulemaking, leaving only the 8-hour standard in force. In doing so, EPA sought to reconcile the regulatory change in the ozone NAAQS with the CAAs anti-backsliding provision, Section 172(e). Although that provision typically applies when EPA relaxes a NAAQS, EPA recognized that due to an overall improvement in air quality since the CAAs 1990 amendments (which contained the 1-hour ozone standard), some non-attainment areas that would have been classified as severe or extreme under the 1-hour standard would now be in a lower classification, such as marginal or moderate, under the 8-hour standard. As such, EPA concluded that Section 172(e) should apply even though EPA had strengthened the ozone NAAQS, and implemented some of the non-attainment requirements to these lower-classification areas. In 2006, the D.C. Circuit generally upheld EPAs interpretation of Section 172(e), but clarified that the fee structure in Section 185 must apply to areas as well. In other words, the ruling required states to impose Section 185 fees on the major stationary sources in an area that failed to meet its attainment deadline under the now-defunct 1-hour standard.
In response to the ruling, EPA issued a guidance document providing alternatives for implementing the Section 185 fee system in non-attainment areas (Guidance). The Guidance authorized states to adopt and implement alternative programs in 1-hour non-attainment areas in lieu of implementing the Section 185 fee program, as long as those alternatives were not less stringent than the Section 185 program. The Guidance also provided an attainment alternative, which allowed regions to avoid Section 185 fees if the region attained the 8-hour standard (even if the region remained in non-attainment of the 1-hour standard). EPA sought to satisfy the APAs notice and comment requirements by specifying that the approval of individual alternatives, either program or attainment based, would occur on a case-by-case basis, and when EPA found an alternative satisfactory, it would proceed with notice and comment to finalize that finding.
NRDC challenged the Guidance on direct review in the D.C. Circuit, alleging that EPA violated the APA by issuing the Guidance without notice and comment. NRDC also alleged that both the program and attainment alternatives in the Guidance violated the Act. In response, EPA raised several procedural arguments, including lack of standing, final agency action, and ripeness, and sought to justify the Guidance as a policy statement or interpretive rule not subject to the APAs notice and comment requirements. D.C. Circuits Decision
The court first dispensed with EPAs procedural arguments, concluding that NRDC had properly shown injury on behalf of its members to assert standing. In reviewing EPAs finality and ripeness arguments, the court considered whether the Guidance announces a binding change in the law. Concluding that it did, the court pointed to the fact that prior to issuing the Guidance, neither the statute nor EPA regulations nor case law authorized alternatives to Section 185 fees. Moreover, now that EPA had issued the Guidance, the court noted that EPAs regional directors no longer retained the discretion to reject state programs that proposed alternatives to Section 185 fees, as they had done in the past. The court explained that post-Guidance, the permissibility of alternatives is now a closed question. According to the panel, the Guidance also represented final agency action because it definitively interpreted Section 172(e) (the anti-backsliding provision) as permitting alternatives to Section 185. By answering that question affirmatively, the Guidance binds EPA regional directors and thus qualifies as final agency action. As such, the court concluded that the Guidance was final agency action that was ripe for review.
Turning to the merits, the panel had no trouble concluding that the Guidance violated the APAs notice and comment requirements: Given that the Guidance document changed the law, the first merits questionwhether the Guidance is a legislative rule that required notice and commentis easy. [The Guidance cannot] be considered a mere statement of policy; it is a rule. The court rejected EPAs argument that the Guidance was merely interpretive, rather than a legislative rule. Per the court, a rule is legislative, and thus subject to the APAs notice and comment requirements, if in the absence of the rule there would not be an adequate legislative basis for enforcement action or other agency action to confer benefits or ensure the performance of duties. Reiterating that nothing in the statute, prior regulations, or case law authorizes EPA to accept alternatives to section 185, the court concluded that the Guidance was a legislative rule because prior to its issuance, nothing entitled a state to have EPA evaluate a proposed alternative for equivalency rather than reject it outright.
Although the court could have stopped after finding that the Guidance violated the APAs notice and comment provision, it went on to weigh NRDCs substantive CAA claims. The panel first decided to defer ruling on the program alternatives validity in the interest of preserving the integrity of the notice and comment period, because neither the statute nor our case law obviously precludes that alternative. The attainment alternative, however, presented a very different situation. Concluding that EPA had once again failed to heed the restrictions on its discretion set forth in the CAA, the court rejected the attainment alternative because it allowed violations of the 1-hour standard to continue unchecked. This in turn violated Section 172(e)s anti-backsliding requirements, which represent a one-way ratchet that may only be tightened, not loosened, according to the court. Courts Rejecting Substitution of Guidance for Rulemaking: A Growing Trend?
The D.C. Circuits decision follows a district court ruling earlier this year that EPA likely exceeded the bounds of its statutory authority and violated the APA by relying on guidance to establish protective standards under the Clean Water Act. National Mining Association v. Jackson; see also Russell Prugh, District Court Says EPA Cannot Shortcut Rulemaking Process by Issuing Interpretive Guidance, Marten Law Environmental News (Feb. 3, 2011). In that case, EPA had sought by interpretive guidance to direct review of CWA permits for so-called mountain-top removal coal mining. Specifically, EPA used interpretive guidance to implement conductivity levels for streams impacted by coal mining and to identify certain permits for additional environmental review. The National Mining Association (NMA) filed suit and sought an injunction, arguing that EPA had exceeded its statutory authority by using interpretive guidance, instead of rulemaking, to set the conductivity levels. Although the district court did not grant the preliminary injunction, it did conclude that NMA established that it will likely succeed in showing that the EPA exceeded its authority under the [CWA] by adopting and implementing the [guidance]. The court is currently considering motions for summary judgment from both sides in NMA v. Jackson, and a decision is expected later this year. Conclusion
EPA has, in recent years, tended to favor the use of interpretive guidance where it can, as the rulemaking process is typically long and arduous. No matter, the D.C. Circuit has joined other courts in holding that guidance is not a substitute for rulemaking.
 --- F.3d ----, 2011 WL 2601560 (D.C. Cir. 2011). All page references in this article refer to the Westlaw version.
 42 U.S.C. § 7409(a).
 CAA, Subchapter I, Part D.
 42 U.S.C. § 7511(a)(1).
 Id. § 7511d(a).
 NRDC v. EPA, at *2.
 42 U.S.C. § 7502(e).
 See S. Coast Air Quality Mgmt. Dist. v. EPA, 472 F.3d 882 (D.C. Cir. 2006).
 NRDC v. EPA, at *3.
 EPA, Memorandum Guidance on Developing Fee Programs Required by Clean Air Act Section 185 for the 1-hour Ozone NAAQS (2010) (Guidance), available at http://www.epa.gov/airquality/ozonepollution/pdfs/20100105185guidance.pdf.
 See Guidance, at 3.
 See id. at 3-4.
 NRDC v. EPA, at *5.
 Id. at *7.
 Id. at *8.
 Id. at *7-8.
 Id. at *8.
 Id. (quoting Am. Mining Cong. v. Mine Safety & Health Admin., 995 F.2d 1106, 1112 (D.C.Cir.1993)).
 Id. at *8.
 Id. at *9.
 Id. at *10 (quoting S. Coast Air Quality Mgmt. Dist. v. EPA, 472 F.3d at 886) (internal quotation marks omitted).
 Id. at *10.
 768 F. Supp. 2d 34 (D.D.C. 2011).
 NMA, 768 F. Supp. 2d at 50.
Good! They are becoming scary powerful and need to be neutered.
When you have an authority to sign documents "Final Agency Decision" your client on the other end is then free to go to Federal District Court if he doesn't like your answer.
This presents a problem when dealing with APPEALS of prior decisions. You gots' ta' cite an established regulation or the law, or both, elst the judge will hand you your head.
About 99% of everything handled by that same administrative office will not consist of "final agency decision" business ~ instead, it will be advisory in nature, or a warning, or a process just short of the way formal appeals are handled.
About 99.99999% of the time the clients on the other end are happy to have "the answer" because, as it turns out, federal rules can be so obtuse that it really does take highly experienced staff people to deal with them as intended.
Since you don't always have those highly experienced staff people around ~ particularly at the field office level, you work up "blurbs" or as EPA described them "advisories".
You can call them "precedents" if you want, and we actually tried to base our own "blurbs" on precedental cases ~ many of which actually ended up in federal court (where we won ~ if we lost, you never heard about it).
I really need to laugh about this EPA problem because only the most IGNANT of executives would have allowed this to happen. My advice is for ALL of their GS15 and above personnel simply resign, get out of there, and let some people who know something move in.
I hate to see the NRDC succeed at it’s mission of destroying industry with false ‘science’.
But it is nice to see that the areas granted leniency here are almost all Democrat power bases:
“...EPA’s latest attempt to reconcile the 8-hour standard with Subpart 2. This time its effort relates only to the application of section 185 fees to the eight regions in severe or extreme nonattainment of the 1-hour standard: Baltimore, Baton Rouge, Houston, New York City, Sacramento, the San Joaquin Valley, the South Coast Air Basin (CA), and the Southeast Desert (CA). “
“Some of the upper limits they mandate for toxic materials are swamped out by natural occurrences.”
I’ve operated a public utility, water supply, for almost 30 years. Some levels can be met without too much expense, but those last few one hundredths of one percent, or even thousandths of one percent, cannot be met without vast expenditures. Water bills would rise by hundreds of percentage points. And with no real advantage to the people served.