Is CO2 a Regulated Pollutant Under the Clean Air Act? Not Yet, At Least in Georgia

Earlier this week, the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed a decision of the Superior Court in Georgia that would have required Longleaf Energy Associates, developer of a coal-fired power plant, to perform a BACT analysis of CO2 emissions control technologies in order to obtain an air quality permit for construction of the plant. The case is a reprise of the Deseret Power case regarding a coal-fired plant in Utah.

The court in Longleaf Energy concluded that CO2 is not yet a regulated pollutant under the CAA, and thus that no BACT analysis is required. There were several bases for this conclusion:

The “Johnson Memo,” issued in response to Deseret Power, has not been withdrawn by EPA, though it is under reconsideration. Even EPA’s proposed endangerment finding for CO2 noted that such a finding would not make CO2 a regulated pollutant under the CAA.

As discussed in the Johnson Memo, neither the CAA nor any existing EPA regulations impose emissions limitations on CO2.

Such a finding would “preempt” Congressional and EPA decision-making on the issue and impose standards in Georgia to which facilities outside of Georgia would not be subject.

The Longleaf Energy decision is a perfectly reasonable interpretation of the CAA – but it’s not the only plausible interpretation. I mention this in order to highlight a point I have made previously. As members of Congress and stakeholders consider the costs and benefits of federal climate change legislation, they have to consider the alternative. Most people, including me, have framed the question as a comparison of the legislative option with regulation by EPA under existing authority. This is largely correct, but misses two points. First, it’s going to take EPA some time to promulgate regulations. In the meantime, there will be more Deseret Power and Longleaf Energy decisions and there is no reason to be confident that such decisions will be consistent or even reconcilable. Second, even after EPA issues regulations, the Longleaf case gives me pause as to whether such regulations would be effective in creating any kind of uniform national interpretation of these issues.

There is just no question that, in the absence of federal legislation, the resulting patchwork of regulations and federal and state decisions concerning the regulation of CO2 and other GHGs is going to be a big mess.

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