by Dennis Westlind
Stoel Rives LLP, Attorneys at Law
The EPA announced its long awaited “endangerment” and “cause or contribute” findings in relation to six key greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride. While technically this announcement is of limited significance (applying only to motor vehicle emissions), the policy import of these determinations is tremendous.
In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court held that greenhouse gases are air pollutants covered by the Clean Air Act in the Massachusetts v. EPA decision. This case arose in relation to EPA’s choice not to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from new motor vehicles. The Court held that EPA must determine whether or not emissions of greenhouse gases from new motor vehicles cause or contribute to air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare, or whether the science is too uncertain to make a reasoned decision.
Earlier this year EPA proposed to issue the two part finding required to commence regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from new motor vehicles. This required first a finding that greenhouse gas emissions endanger public health and welfare and a second finding that emissions from new motor vehicle engines cause or contribute to greenhouse gas air pollution. The comment period for these proposed findings ended June 23, 2009 and EPA received over 380,000 public comments. Today, Lisa Jackson (EPA Administrator) signed final findings that greenhouse gases endanger both the public health and the public welfare of current and future generations and that the combined emissions of these greenhouse gases from new motor vehicles and new motor vehicle engines contribute to the greenhouse gas air pollution that endangers public health and welfare.
As a legal matter, today’s findings relate only to vehicle emissions. However, the precedent that they create will almost certainly result in substantial regulation for other source categories. It is no coincidence that this finding was announced on the first day of the Copenhagen talks on climate change. The Obama administration both wanted to show that some progress was being made in the U.S. and it wants to leverage this progress into further statutory or regulatory requirements.
Towards this goal, one of the more interesting things to come out of the determinations is the formal establishment of the new pollutant: “Well-Mixed Greenhouse Gases.” This term is now officially entered into EPA’s regulatory lexicon as a pollutant to be regulated. Well-Mixed Greenhouse Gases consists of the 6 Kyoto gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride) but introduces the grouping now as a regulatory unit. It is noteworthy that vehicles are not material sources of all of these greenhouse gases and so the use of this term should be seen as setting the stage for future regulation.
Also of interest is an EPA restatement in a footnote that at this time it does not consider greenhouse gases to be a regulated air pollutant. This is of tremendous significance to stationary sources of greenhouse gases as the moment that greenhouse gases become regulated, there is the potential argument that they are subject to Title V and major new source review permitting. At the risk of understating the issue, that would be a mess of biblical proportions.
For those wishing to read all 284 pages of the findings document, it can be found at: http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/endangerment/downloads/FinalFindings.pdf
The findings are not valid until 30 days after they are published in the Federal Register. Expect publication to occur later this month.
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