(This post is an adaptation of an article published in the November 2017 newsletter of the Air Quality Committee, a committee of the American Bar Association’s Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources. A PDF of the article is available here.)
By Kurt Blase
EPA Administrator Pruitt has announced a new “Back-to-Basics Agenda” to “refocus” EPA on its mission and return power to the states. This is likely to affect EPA’s review of state plans for attainment of the ozone standard and other national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS).
Many states, particularly in the West, have predicted nonattainment of the 2015 ozone standard as a result of ozone background concentrations not susceptible to localized controls. They argue that in such cases, employment of additional local control measures would provide negligible public health benefits, but would impose substantial costs. They also point to evidence that the resulting economic dislocation causes significant public health problems.
This is one area where EPA arguably has broad discretion to defer to the states. Clean Air Act (CAA) Section 107 provides that “Each state shall have the primary responsibility for ensuring air quality within the entire geographic area comprising such State . . .” EPA may construe Section 107 to give states wide latitude to address background issues. And the federal courts may defer. For example, the Supreme Court has noted that “the most important forum for consideration of claims of economic and technological infeasibility is before the state agency formulating the implementation plan.” Whitman v. American Trucking Ass’ns, Inc., 531 U.S. 457, 470 (2001)(quoting Union Electric Co. v. EPA, 427 U.S. at 266).
CAA Section 179B allows EPA to approve state plans that do not require actual attainment in areas that would be in attainment “but for” emissions emanating from outside the US. In the ozone implementation rule proposed by the Obama Administration, EPA requested comment on whether this relief is limited to emissions from Canada and Mexico. However, the statute imposes no such requirement and, as EPA noted, contributions to U.S. ozone concentrations can be made by international sources not located in bordering countries.
EPA’s proposal also sought comment on a requirement that all “reasonably available control measures” (RACM) must be employed to qualify for relief from foreign emissions. Again, however, the statute does not require that, and it provides EPA with flexibility to approve state plans that do not require actual attainment or impose ineffective controls in cases involving international emissions.
The ozone implementation proposal would require intrastate sources outside of a nonattainment area to employ RACM. Once again, however, nothing in the nonattainment provisions of the Act requires that. If a state determines that a source outside the recommended boundary may contribute, it can require any necessary controls pursuant to other provisions of the Act.
While these issues are a focus of the current ozone debate, they are not limited to the ozone NAAQS and apply to the other standards as well. With respect to NAAQS attainment plans and designations, “back to basics” is real: the statute gives EPA ample flexibility to defer to state choices provided a rational basis consistent with statutory requirements is employed.