Last week, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision that arguably explains everything from why the Tea Party exists to why otherwise calm and sane executives suddenly lose all their hair. Perhaps most astounding, the decision is clearly correct. Perhaps the law is an ass.
In 2008, Avenal Power submitted an application to EPA for a PSD permit to construct a new 600 MW natural gas-fired power plant in Avenal, California. Although section 165(c) of the Clean Air Act requires EPA to act on such applications within one year, EPA failed to do so.
Subsequently, and before EPA ever did issue a permit, EPA revised the National Ambient Air Quality Standard for NOx. Avenal Power apparently could demonstrate that emissions from the new plant would comply with the old NAAQS, but could not demonstrate that it would not cause an exceedance of the new NAAQS. After some waffling, EPA took the position that it could grandfather the permit application and review it under the prior NAAQS. Citizen groups appealed and the Court of Appeals held that EPA had no authority to grandfather the application.
To the Court, this was a simple application of Step 1 of Chevron. The Court concluded that sections 165(a)(3) and (4) and 110(j) of the CAA unambiguously require EPA to apply the NAAQS in effect at the time a permit is issued. Thus, EPA has no discretion to grandfather permit applications, even though EPA was required by law to issue a permit decision at a time when more lenient requirements were in effect.
I think that the Court’s decision is clearly right on the law. The statutory language seems unambiguous. But what did the Court have to say to those who feel that the result is inequitable, because Avenal was legally entitled to a decision in one year, and would have obtained its permit if EPA had acted timely? Pretty much, tough luck:
Finally, EPA relies heavily on the argument that the equities weigh in favor of Avenal Power. In short, we agree. Avenal Power filed its application over six years ago, and endeavored to work with EPA for years, even after filing suit, to obtain a final decision. But however regrettable EPA’s treatment of Avenal Power has been, we simply cannot disregard the plain language of the Clean Air Act, or overlook the reason why an applicant must comply with revised and newly stringent standards —that is, “to protect and enhance the quality of the Nation’s air resources so as to promote the public health and welfare and the productive capacity of its population.” Honoring the statute’s plain language and overriding purpose, we must send EPA and Avenal Power back to the drawing board. (Emphasis added.)
In other words, EPA screwed up, and Avenal Power got screwed. Imagine having to explain that to your client.
Unfortunately, I’ve found there’s not much imagination required. I prefer to tell clients that their project “pro-formas” should always reflect the best estimates of the probabilities of the regulatory “rug” being pulled out from under at some point. As we both learned the hard way, that can even apply to projects that have been operating in compliance for 50 years.