By Laura King
Coalition for Responsible Regulation v. EPA follows from and amplifies the Supreme Court’s decision in Massachusetts v. EPA. Both cases announce the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act — with Massachusetts v. EPA prodding a reticent EPA into regulation of greenhouse gases under the motor vehicle provision of the Act, and Coalition for Responsible Regulation v. EPA affirming both EPA’s obedience to Massachusetts v. EPA and the agency’s new willingness to extend greenhouse gas regulation to stationary sources. The cases are significant because they together stimulated and sustained the first controls on greenhouse gases in the United States, altering a status quo in which greenhouse gas emissions were free — not taxed or regulated or otherwise constrained.
Overall, Coalition for Responsible Regulation v. EPA is a win for the environment. Its effect is to preserve permitting requirements for stationary sources that emit greenhouse gases. It also supports and extends the Supreme Court’s recognition in Massachusetts v. EPA that EPA may regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. However, what the case reveals about the American legal system’s ability to respond to changes in the natural world is sobering. It exposes a system in need of revision: one in which lawmaking, designed to be measured, manages instead to be dawdling, and agencies and courts must summon all of their resources — prognostication, strategy, rhetorical finesse, and luck — to turn outdated statutes toward pressing threats. In this case, in an effort to provide some response to climate change and thus fulfill broader public mandates, both EPA and the D.C. Circuit held statutory language at arm’s length: EPA, by promulgating rules that “tailored” the clearest kind of statutory language — numbers; the court, by calling on standing doctrine to avoid facing — and thus having to overturn — EPA’s fast-and-loose interpretation.
These choices, which were essentially workarounds to avoid the application of straightforward statutory language, together succeeded in preserving greenhouse gas regulation, but not without risk and compromise to environmental positions. Whenever an agency departs from statutory language, it risks reversal. That risk is especially acute when the reviewing court is the D.C. Circuit and the reviewing panel includes David Tatel, who, in his capacity as a judge on the D.C. Circuit, has urged agency officials — if they are to satisfy the court and fulfill their role as responsible public servants — to “(1) [r]ead the statute; (2) read the statute; (3) read the statute!” The D.C. Circuit, for its part, preserved EPA’s workaround by doing a workaround itself, one that shrinks somewhat that cornerstone of environmental litigation: standing doctrine.
Part I of this comment puts Coalition for Responsible Regulation v. EPA in context by reviewing the history of greenhouse gas regulation under the Clean Air Act. Part II profiles the case itself. Parts III and IV use Coalition for
Responsible Regulation v. EPA as a showcase for the nimble, risky choices required of agencies and courts as they use outdated statutory frameworks to respond to new environmental challenges. Thus, Part III shows EPA balancing the danger of taking a red pen to the Act, on the one hand, against the danger of overseeing a sprawling regulatory program, on the other. Part IV shows the D.C. Circuit preserving EPA’s approach to regulation of greenhouse gases at the cost of narrowing the doctrine of standing. The trade, as we will see in the details, is not terrible, but it is a compromise nevertheless.
Cite as: Laura King, Changing Climate, Unchanging Act, Improvising Agency, Enabling Court: The Story of Coalition for Responsible Regulation v. EPA, 37 Harv. Envtl. L. Rev. 267 (2013).