NAAQS Petition Confirms Mass v. EPA Is Bottomless Well of Absurd Results

Yesterday, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to establish National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for carbon dioxide (CO2) pegged at 350 parts per million (ppm). CO2 concentrations are currently about 387 ppm. The CBD is the eco-litigation group that successfully sued the Fish and Wildlife Service to list the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

I’ll have more to say about the specifics of the petition (available here) in a later post. For now, I just want to note that the petition is additional confirmation that Massachusetts v. EPA, the April 2007 Supreme Court global warming case, is a bottomless well of absurd results that imperil both our economy and the U.S. Constitution.

CEI has been saying from day one – in our comment on EPA’s July 2008 Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, our comment on EPA’s April 2009 Endangerment Proposal, our comment on EPA’s September 2009 Motor Vehicle Greenhouse Gas Emissions Standards Proposal, and in columns about Mass. v. EPA when the case was still pending – that an endangerment finding under Sec. 202 of the Clean Air Act (CAA) would satisfy the endangerment test in CAA Sec. 108 and, thus, trigger a NAAQS rulemaking.

Not even a global economic depression sustained over many decades would be enough to stabilize atmospheric CO2 levels at 350 ppm — the goal of the petition. For example, even if the world’s governments could somehow dial back global CO2 emissions to 1957 levels, when the global economy was smaller than one-third its present size, and then hold CO2 emissions constant for the next nine decades, global concentrations would still increase to 455 ppm by 2100.

Obviously, when Congress enacted the Clean Air Act, it did not authorize EPA to squash the U.S. economy. Indeed, one of the Act’s main purposes is to protect the “productive capacity” of the American people (CAA Sec. 101).

Nonetheless, by misreading the Act to include authority to regulate CO2 as an “air pollutant,” the Supreme Court set the stage for a regulatory chain reaction, including establishment of NAAQS for CO2 set below current atmospheric levels, which would effectively turn the CAA into a national economic suicide pact. 

This is not the only “absurd result” that follows from the Court’s misreading of the Act in Mass. v. EPA. According to EPA’s proposed Tailoring Rule, “literal” (i.e. lawful) application of the CAA to greenhouse gases would annually require 41,000 small firms to apply for Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) pre-construction permits and 6.1 million firms to apply for Title V operating permits. In other words, EPA and its state counterparts would have to process 140 times as many PSD permits and 400 times as many Title V permits per year as they do now. The permitting programs would crash under their own weight, construction activity would grind to a screeching halt, and millions of firms would suddenly find themselves operating in legal limbo. A more potent Anti-Stimulus Package would be hard to imagine.

To avoid these problems, EPA’s Tailoring Rule proposes, over the next six years, to exempt firms emitting less than 25,000 tons per year (TPY) of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gases, even though the statute specifies that PSD and Title V shall apply to sources with potential to emit 250 TPY and 100 TPY of any regulated pollutant, respectively. The Tailoring Rule is actually an Amending Rule. To prevent Mass. v. EPA from turning the CAA into an economic wrecking ball, EPA proposes to play lawmaker and suspend provisions it doesn’t like, violating the separation of powers.

Even if the Tailoring Rule survives judicial challenge, which is doubtful, because it flouts clear statutory language, it would in no way lessen the threat of economy-crushing NAAQS regulation of CO2.

There is only one sensible course for policymakers to take: Overturn Mass. v. EPA. Congress should enact legislation, such as H.R. 391 introduced by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), clarifying that CO2 is not subject to regulation under the CAA for climate change purposes.