What Happens If Congress Blocks EPA?

That’s the topic of this week’s National Journal energy blog. In my contribution, I argue that EPA has been playing a mischievous game that endangers democracy, and that Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s legislation to veto the agency’s endangerment finding would remove this threat. 

In a Feb. 22 letter to Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson warns that enactment of the Murkowski legislation would scuttle the joint EPA/National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) greenhouse gas/fuel economy rulemaking, which in turn would compel the struggling auto industry to operate under a “patchwork quilt” of state-level fuel-economy regulations.

Ms. Jackson neglects to mention that the patchwork threat exists only because she, reversing Bush EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson’s decision, granted California a waiverto implement its own GHG/fuel economy program. Had Jackson reaffirmed Johnson’s denial, there would be no danger of a patchwork, hence no ostensible need for the joint EPA/NHTSA rulemaking to avert it.

As my blog post explains, EPA should not have approved the waiver in the first place. The California GHG/fuel economy program violates the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, which prohibits states from adopting laws or regulations “related to” fuel economy. Worse, the waiver creates a reverse right of preemption whereby states may nullify federal law within their borders — an affront to the Supremacy Clause. 

Specifically, the waiver would allow California, and other states opting into the California program, to nullify within their boundaries the reformed national fuel economy program that Congress enacted in the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA). That leads straight to a patchwork of state-by-state compliance regimes inimical to a healthy auto industry.

The game EPA is playing is a classic case of bureaucratic self-dealing.

First, EPA endangers the U.S. auto industry by authorizing states to flout federal law and the Constitution. Then, EPA proposes to avert disaster via a rulemaking that just happens to put EPA in the driver’s seat in regulating fuel economy – a power Congress never delegated to EPA when it enacted and amended the Clean Air Act.

Nor is that all. The joint GHG/fuel economy regulation will compel EPA to regulate CO2 from stationary sources – another power Congress never delegated to EPA. By expanding its control over the transport sector, EPA will then have to expand its control over manufacturing, power generation, and much of the commercial and residential sectors, too, because all emit CO2.

In addition, the motor vehicle GHG rule sets the stage for EPA to “tailor,” that is amend, the Clean Air Act so that the agency can delay imposing pre-construction and operating permit requirements on small business, which would surely ignite a political backlash.

So thanks to the endangerment finding, EPA not only gets to play in NHTSA’s fuel-economy sandbox, and extend its tentacles throughout the economy, it also gets to play lawmaker, violating the separation of powers.

In light of all the new powers EPA now expects to wield, it is hardly surprising that EPA never made the strong case against Clean Air Act regulation of CO2 in Massachusetts v. EPA. Here’s what EPA should have argued:

  • EPA cannot regulate GHG emissions from new motor vehicles under Sec. 202 of the Clean Air Act without regulating CO2 under the Act as a whole. 
  • Aplying the Act as a whole to CO2 leads ineluctably to “absurd results” that contravene congressional intent.
  • Therefore, Congress could not have intended for EPA to regulate GHG emissions under Sec. 202.

Did EPA throw the fight in the 11th round? I dunno, but losing the Massachusetts case was surely sweet victory to those in the agency who long to regulate America into a “clean energy future.” The Massachusetts decision laid the groundwork for EPA to deal itself into a position to bypass the people’s elected representatives, impose its will on the auto industry, and, in time, dictate national climate and energy policy.

What happens if Congress enacts Sen. Murkowski’s resolution, nixes the endangerment finding, and mothballs the GHG/fuel economy rule? The authority to make law and national policy returns to where the framers of the Constitution intended — the people’s elected representatives.