GHG Regulation under the Existing CAA: Coming Soon to a [Large] Stationary Source Near You

On Thursday, EPA issued its long-awaited proposed rule describing how thresholds would be set for regulation of GHG sources under the existing Clean Air Act PSD authority. Having waded through the 416-page proposal, I’m torn between the appropriate Shakespeare quotes to describe it: “Much ado about nothing” or “Methinks thou dost protest too much.”

First, notwithstanding its length, the proposal is quite limited in scope. In essence, it has three parts:

Establishment of an applicability threshold for PSD and Title V purposes of 25,000 tons per year of CO2e.

Establishment of a PSD significance level of from 10,000 tpy CO2e and 25,000 CO2e.

Development over the next five years of means to streamline GHG regulation of sources greater than the current statutory levels of 100-250 tpy.

Basically, EPA’s position is that, once it begins to regulate GHGs as a pollutant by promulgating its mobile source rule – expected next spring – stationary source regulation under the PSD and Title V programs follow automatically. Thus, the issue for EPA at this point is not whether to regulate stationary sources, but how to do so without the entire program grinding to a halt.

Here’s where the protestation comes in. Most of the proposal is devoted to explaining EPA’s reliance of the doctrines of “absurd results” and “administrative necessity” to justify exclusion of sources that would seem to be categorically included by the explicit language of the statute. Members of the regulated community will understand the irony in EPA’s extensive discussion regarding how the purpose of the PSD program is to achieve environmental protection and economic development – and that this latter purpose would be jeopardized by regulation of sources at the 100/250 tpy threshold. I don’t think we will ever again see EPA devote this many pages to a description of its concern about economic growth.

I’m not going to predict here whether EPA will win any challenge to the higher thresholds. Certainly, the absurd results doctrine argument is the stronger of the two. It is noteworthy that the four leading environmental cases EPA cites in support of its administrative necessity argument, while acknowledging the existence of the doctrine, all went against EPA.

More relevant still is the question of who would in fact challenge this regulation and what would be the result even if the challenge succeeded. Following the debacle that resulted from vacation of the CAIR rule, what is the likelihood that a successful challenge would result in vacation of the rule in its entirety? Isn’t it more likely that the rule would stay in effect as to the large sources, with the court remanding the case to EPA to promulgate rules governing smaller sources? In fact, that’s what EPA is already doing, which is probably EPA’s strongest practical argument in support of the rule.

Public comments will be due 60 days from Federal Register promulgation and there are some issues that the regulated community should consider. These include the significance threshold, and suggestions regarding how to streamline the program for smaller sources. EPA has proposed some interesting ideas, including presumptive BACT determinations and general permits.

Bottom line? Large sources better get ready to comply. Smaller sources, take a deep breath and count your blessings – for now.

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