Time to See if the Suit Fits: EPA Releases the Tailoring Rule

First Kerry-Lieberman, then the Tailoring Rule – a busy week for climate change. Senator Kerry certainly did not miss the coincidence. He called the release of the Tailoring Rule the “last call” for federal legislation. I’ve noted before the leverage that EPA regulation would provide, but this is the most explicit I’ve seen one of the sponsors on the issue.

As to the substance, there are not really any surprises at this point. EPA is certainly working to soften the blow of GHG regulation under the PSD program. Here are the basics (summarized here):

January 2, 2011 – Facilities obtaining PSD permits for pollutants other than GHGs after that date will need to meet BACT for GHG (whatever that may be) if their GHG emissions will increase by at least 75,000 tpy.

July 1, 2011 – New facilities with emissions of at least 100,000 tpy of GHG will need to obtain a PSD permit and meet BACT (whatever that may be) for GHG, even if they do not need a PSD permit for other pollutants. Modified facilities with increases of at least 75,000 tpy will have to obtain a PSD permit and meet BACT (whatever that may be) for GHG, even if they do not need a PSD permit for other pollutants.

July 1, 2012 – EPA will conclude a further rulemaking to address smaller sources. EPA has already committed to not regulate sources with GHG emissions below 50,000 tpy and further stated that permits would not be required for smaller sources before April 30, 2016.

As I’ve subtly hinted above, we still don’t know what EPA thinks BACT for GHG may be. EPA has at least suggested that, with respect to coal plants, BACT may be Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle, or IGCC, and with respect to IGCC plants, BACT may be natural gas. If so, we’re not going to see many traditional coal plants permitted after this rule takes effect.

What about opposition to the rule? It’s near certain that someone will challenge it. While environmental groups support it and have suggested that opponents may not have standing, I’m skeptical. I think it likely that someone with standing will challenge it. I also think that there is a reasonable chance that the rule is overturned, because it’s not obvious to me that the courts will buy the “administrative necessity” argument. The more fundamental point is that I’m not sure it matters. If the Tailoring Rule is struck down, a court is still unlikely to vacate the rule. Instead, the court is likely to keep the Tailoring Rule in place, while giving EPA time to figure out how to comply with conflicting mandates in a way that doesn’t bring the world as we know it to an end.

At bottom, the problem isn’t the Tailoring Rule. The problem is that Massachusetts v. EPA makes regulation of GHG under the existing Clean Air Act inevitable absent congressional action. In other words, John Kerry is right; the Tailoring Rule is last call for the climate bill. I happen to agree with opponents that regulation of GHG under existing authority will be a nightmare. Even exempting small sources, PSD is just a terrible way to go – one of the last vestiges of command and control regulation and a nearly incomprehensible one, at that.

However, given Massachusetts v. EPA, Congress really only has two ways to fix the problem. The first would be to pass climate legislation. The second would be to pass legislation to preclude EPA regulation of GHG under existing authority. Right now, neither alternative seems likely, but once EPA rules are in effect, they’ll both be more tempting. We’ll see which we Congress moves.

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