Thank You CBD: Another Reason to Nix EPA Endangerment Finding

Twice during the past six months, the eco-litigators at the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) have underscored the political necessity for Congress to overturn EPA’s endangerment finding.

Yes, that is very far from CBD’s intention. CBD is a fervent defender of the endangerment finding, the December 2009 rulemaking in which EPA concluded that greenhouse emissions endanger public health and welfare.

The endangerment finding compels EPA to establish greenhouse gas emission standards for new motor vehicles, which in turn makes carbon dioxide (CO2) a “regulated air pollutant”  under the Clean Air Act, which in turn makes “major” stationary sources of CO2 “subject to regulation” under the Act’s Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) pre-construction permitting program and Title V operating permits program. CBD must be thrilled by the endangerment finding and the regulatory cascade it has triggered.

CBD wants EPA to follow through on all the regulatory commitments logically entailed by the endangerment finding and CO2’s new status as a “regulated air pollutant.” But that’s where things get dicey for President Obama and his congressional allies. Once the regulatory genie is out of the bottle, Obama officials may not be able to control it.

Even EPA acknowledges that applying the Act’s permitting programs to CO2 leads to “absurd results.” For example, EPA and its state counterparts would have to process 41,000 PSD permit applications per year (instead of 280) and 6.1 million Title V permits per year (instead of 14,700). The resulting administrative quagmire would paralyze environmental enforcement, slam the brakes on development, and force millions of firms to operate in legal limbo. A more potent anti-stimulus package would be hard to imagine. 

To avoid this red ink nightmare, EPA has issued a Tailoring Rule that exempts small CO2 emitters from the Act’s permitting programs for six years. However, nothing in the statute authorizes EPA to suspend or modify the permitting requirements. In reality, EPA’s Tailoring Rule is an amending rule. It’s anybody’s guess whether courts will uphold this breach of the separation of powers.

Even if they do, the endangerment finding will still endanger the U.S. economy and our constitutional system of separated powers and democratic accountability. Thank you, CBD, for bringing this peril to light!

Last December, CBD petitioned EPA to establish national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) for greenhouse gases set below current atmospheric levels. CBD is only acting on the obvious implication of EPA’s assertion that endangerment comes from the “elevated concentration” of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Why should Obama and congressional leaders worry? The Clean Air Act requires states to come into attainment with a primary (health-based) NAAQS within five or at most 10 years. Yet not even a global depression lasting several decades would suffice to lower CO2 concentrations from today’s level (390 parts per million) to the stabilization target (350 parts per million) demanded by CBD and its co-petitioners. Because EPA may not take compliance costs into account when establishing NAAQS, the endangerment finding sets the stage for eco-litigators to transform the Act into a de-industrialization mandate.  No elected official wants to take ownership of so crazy a policy. If CBD prevails, however, Obama and the Democrats — the Party of Endangerment — will be left holding the bag. 

Yesterday, CBD filed suit to overturn EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson’s reconsideration of her predecessor Stephen Johnson’s memorandum determining when a pollutant is “subject to regulation” under the PSD program. Jackson’s reconsideration held that a pollutant is subject to regulation not when EPA finalizes an emissions control rulemaking but when the rule takes effect. Since EPA’s greenhouse gas motor vehicle standards rule does not take effect until January 2011, Jackson concluded that EPA may not regulate greenhouse gases from stationary sources until then. CBD says EPA should have started already to regulate large emitters via PSD.

CBD’s lawsuit makes EPA regulation of greenhouse gases a real-time issue for this Congress, not just a post-election issue for the next Congress. It increases the pressure on Democrats to get the monkey off their back. If courts strike down Jackson’s reconsideration, they will be more likely to strike down the Tailoring Rule, which undeniably flouts statutory language. Courts will also be more likely to look favorably on CBD’s NAAQS petition, which simply demands that EPA, having made an endangerment finding, follow the letter of the law.   

Democratic Senators who don’t want to bet their political futures on EPA’s ability to control the cascading effects of greenhouse gas regulation under the Clean Air Act — or who simply believe that climate policy is too important to be made by non-elected bureaucrats, trial lawyers, and activist judges appointed for life — will soon get their opportunity.

On June 10, the Senate will vote on a resolution of disapproval (S.J.Res.26), sponsored by Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, to nullify the legal force and effect of EPA’s endangerment finding. If enacted, S.J.Res.26 will:

  1. Avert the threat of an administrative meltdown under the PSD and Title V programs.
  2. Avert the threat of sky-is-the-limit, money-is-no-object regulation of greenhouse gases via the NAAQS program.
  3. Avoid the need for EPA to play lawmaker and ‘amend” a statute it is supposed merely to administer.

Most importantly, enacting Sen. Murkowski’s resolution will ensure that the big decisions about the content and direction of national policy are made by the people’s representatives, as the Constitution requires.